Monday, 16 July 2018

A Tale of Two Sand Plovers

Back in August 1991, I was about to hook up with my teenage birding mate, Dunc Poyser to catch the Shetland ferry at Aberdeen, for a trip to Fair Isle. We had completed out GCSEs a few weeks earlier and had been allowed to head up north to the fabled isle for some late summer birding. I was surprised to hear on Birdline that a Greater Sand Plover had been found on the Don Estuary, just north of Aberdeen earlier that day – get in! I met Dunc and his family at Aberdeen and told him the news. Fortunately, it didn’t take much to persuade Dunc’s Dad to drive us to the Don to look for it. Game on!

We found the site and a small group of local birders watching the bird. What a corker! In good plumage, the bird picked about on the mudflats by the river. We watched it at leisure, and I took a full description. This, about the eleventh GSP for Britain at the time, was a lifer for both of us and totally unexpected – a great start to the holiday!

 My original notes from August 1991. Note how short-billed the bird looks in my sketches...

Above - Extract from Birding World 4:11, page 398. This article points out a number of anomalies with the identification, but in spite of these the authors concluded that the evidence pointed to Greater, rather than Lesser.

Fast-forward six years to 1997 and a Sand Plover at Pagham Harbour in West Sussex was identified as Britain’s first Lesser. I was away in Indonesia at the time so was unaware of the subsequent events. The tricky Don Estuary bird clearly was nagging away at the birding fraternity’s collective conscience and with better identification criteria having been established, the individual was re-assessed and judged to be Britain’s first Lesser, not a Greater as first thought. It is interesting to check back at my field notes from the time, see above…So, the tippex came out, and one Sand Plover was replaced with another. Ever since then, I have seen both species abroad, but never had a sniff of one in Blighty, despite both turning up. 

Fast-forward another 20 years and my wife was away walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks with some friends and I was left in charge of the dog and the kids. Firstly, an Audouin’s Gull rocked up in Sheffield of all places, on the Friday evening. I had no chance of getting there – at least it wasn’t a British tick for me, but it would have filled a nice gap on my Yorkshire list. It wasn’t to be, and despite considering my options for the Saturday, it did a bunk. Next up, a Greater Sand Plover was found by the Little Tern wardens on the beach as Easington! No Way! I couldn’t believe having missed the Squacco a couple of weeks ago by being tied up with a training course, I was looking at missing this bird too, being tied up with Dad duties and not thinking it fair to drag the kids all the way to Easington to see a wader. After a lot of soul searching, I decided to do the right thing and took the kids to the beach at Scarborough. The kids played in the sand, the dog swam about in the sea and I tried to suppress any thoughts of Sand Plovers a little way to the south. News of it flying off late morning reinforced my belief that I had done the right thing….but then it came back! Drat. However, I had happy kids and an exhausted wet dog – gold star for birding Dad! After filling our faces with candy floss and pop, we headed back early to York to pick up their Mum and attend a friend’s BBQ – oh, and watch the World Cup Final. .

Crippling photos of the GSP started coming through on Twitter, as many friends made the journey to see this mega Yorkshire bird. And what a handsome beast it seemed to be! By late afternoon it suddenly occurred to me that I could twitch it after the match. I messaged a few York birding mates and Dunc Bye was up for it. Game on #2. 

The often painfully-slow journey east to Spurn was not bad at all, presumably as most people were relaxing after watching the World Cup Final, rather than driving around the county like lunatics. We arrived at Seaside Road and began the long trudge south along the beach towards Beacon Ponds. The line of birders in the distance gradually came closer and after what seemed like forever, we arrived. 

Easington Beach.

Within a few tense moments, I got my scope on to the big plover, which was scurrying about on the shingle in front of a large Dunlin roost. It was c500m away, so not the kind of views people had had earlier on, but it was still pretty good through the scope in the evening sunshine – get in! Greater Sand Plover finally makes it back on to my British list 27 years after I had rubbed it out! 

 A distant Yorkshire Greater Sand Plover.

The bird was very active, running around with a few feeding Dunlin and Ringed Plovers, mostly on the edge of a tidal pool. Nearby birders speculated that it might decide to return north up the beach like it had done the previous evening, but sadly, it did not. We watched if for half an hour or so, and then decided we should head back, job done. Plenty of Little Terns were flying about noisily, let’s hope they have had a good breeding season here. Family groups of Sandwich Terns were heading south along the coast calling excitedly, a sign of the autumn to come.
Below are three photos of a bird at KM20 north of Eilat in March this year.


Saturday, 14 July 2018

Long, hot summer

The hot weather and drought conditions continue. It seems to have been weeks since we had any rain. With little water available in the LDV, the pool at Wheldrake Ings is acting as a magnet for birds and is hosting good numbers of Little Egrets and Grey Herons and is starting to pull in some early migrant waders.

Pick of the bunch was an adult Wood Sandpiper found by Duncan on the 8th, which was still there in the evening, when I twitched it. Also present, were three Green Sandpipers, again adults, A stonking Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit and a few Redshanks which may well have been born locally. A lone juvenile Water Rail showed well along the edge of the Glyceria.

The meadow has now been cut for hay, with a large patch left in case the Corncrake had chosen to breed again, although there has been no sight or sound for a while.

 Little Egret gang. A common sight in the Valley these days.

 Iceland's finest. Black-tailed Godwit.

 Two Green Sandpipers. Both adults, maybe females which tend to depart the breeding grounds first.
Redshank (juv) with adult Wood Sandpiper, showing how dinky Wood Sands are!

 Wood Sand.
Wood Sand

The low water conditions bodes well for the next few weeks, with hopefully some more waders making an appearance. A Pec would be nice, or a Marsh Sand....

Product Review: Wunderbird Gyrfalcon

I was a little surprised, a few weeks ago, when Gil Gutlick contacted me to see if I would field test a new birding clothes line, Wunderbird. I was surprised because I don’t really go for the traditional birding look, so why me? I can’t stand camouflage, for starters, and multi-pocketed waist coats are right out! Most gear sold to birders is really made for hunters, photographers or even fishermen, and birders are just a marginal market. And this kind of style really isn’t my look! I much prefer birding in clothes that I am just as happy wearing to the pub with my mates, clothing that is comfortable, durable and to be honest, looks cool. Well, looks cool to me at least! My usual birding apparel is a Vans hoodie and jeans. Throw in a beanie and a snowboard jacket for when the weather turns, and you’ve kind of got my drift. So you can imagine my scepticism when asked to test a garment designed for birders…!

But there was a twist. Wunderbird is brand designed specifically for birders. Wunderbird is not aimed at hunters or fishermen and Gil has done lots of work in the field to figure out the nuances of what birders need in a clothes garment. I checked out the Wunderbird website and was delighted to find not a single camouflage item in sight! The design of the website and visuals of the clothing had a really urban feel, and their main outer garment, the Gyrfalcon (yes, cool, I know) was a hoodie! I simply had to give this a try…
The website, is simple to navigate and has a very useful size guide- even though I still managed to misjudge my own size! I put my order in and a few days later a package arrived, which I opened eagerly. Apart from the disappointing plastic packaging, my immediate impressions of the Gyrfalcon hoodie were of a high quality, highly technical garment, with a load of features I had simply never seen before. This looked good. The only slight drawback was the fact that the UK was undergoing its warmest summer in decades and giving the Gyrfalcon a true field test was going to be rather hot work!

The Gyrfalcon

The Wunderbird Gyrfalcon is a long-sleeved hoodie featuring two front pouches, the top one of which is zipped, quite shallow and located high on the chest. The lower is above waist height and has a velcro fastening for the outer pouch and then an inner hand pocket. The hood has two side toggles and a rear toggle all of which can enable the wearer to adjust the hood – helpful if windy. The best feature of the hood is the stiffened peak, which gives a clear view out when worn – important for birding right?! The shoulders are padded, aiming to reduce pressure on the neck and shoulders when carrying a scope and tripod, but these work just as well for easing the pressure of a shoulder-slung DSLR, camera bag or rucsac.

The Gyrfalcon, showing padding on shoulder. Note the tiny zipper in the middle of the pic.

The build quality of the Gyrfalcon is excellent, with high quality treble stitching. The material seems robust and probably wind proof and shower proof, though I need to test this in the appropriate weather conditions later in the year! The cuffs are long and narrow which means they will slot neatly into gloves if necessary.

The Gyrfalcon comes impregnated with an anti-mosquito coating, which I am sure would be a really helpful addition where these beasts are about. I will have to try it next time I am out looking for Nightjars!

So what's it like? The Gyrfalcon is comfortable, and has the feeling of a well-designed, high quality garment. The hood works well, and the adjustment toggles easy to use. The peak works well, not impeding the view at all. I usually wear a peaked baseball cap when birding, and the hoodie works well with it. The additional bonus of the hood is the protection it offers the neck from the ubiquitous binocular strap!

Prince of thieves.

I was a little sceptical about the front pouches designed to take the weight of the bins (binoculars). I tend to wear my bins strap short, and so the top pocket was the most suitable for me. I found it a little tricky to get my bins out quickly but with a bit of practise it became easier. The benefit was clear; it really does take the weight off your neck.

The most beneficial use is when you are walking between birding sites, or when there are few birds around, so the bins would sit comfortably in there. If you are using your bins regularly, you have the option simply to ignore the pouch allowing usual bins access. One drawback is that if you have smaller bins, 8x for instance, with shorter barrels, they would mostly disappear within the pouch making it trickier to extract them quickly. Mine are 10x Zeiss and quite long, so about half protruded from the pouch, making them easy to grab. The lower pouch gives the option for birders who prefer the 'low-slung' approach, whilst keeping the hand pockets free, which sit at the back. The garment has been built well, as when the bins are in their pouch, the garment doesn't pull forward.

Two details which may need thought are the fastenings on the pouches. The zip on the upper pouch is very tiny and I suspect could well break with frequent use. Also, this would be fiddly for people with bigger hands, and nigh on impossible when wearing gloves. The lower pouch, which I found useful for carrying my notebook and phonescoping adaptor has a short piece of velcro as a fastener. Again, it was a bit flimsy and could do with a rethink to make it more substantial.

The lower pouch and pocket.

The environmental credentials of a product is important to me and I would hope to most other birders too. I could not find much about this on the Wunderbird website or in the packaging. The label on the product states it was made in Vietnam and is 100% polyester. This suggests that it will not be breathable, so the wearer could get rather sweaty, particularly during exertion. Wearing it in a hot summer was not a fair test however! There are of course lots of benefits to polyester, such as durability and washability, but a range of pretty noxious chemicals are used in its production, and manufacture in the Far East comes with potential risks due to lower environmental standards and regulation (in some cases)– could we birders be reassured that there was no impact on the environment in the production of this garment?

Furthermore, the garment arrived wrapped in a plastic bag. Again, not the best packaging for an environmentally-minded birder and something I hope Wunderbird would seek to change as a priority.
The Gyrfalcon retails at about £60 which I would say is pretty good value. I tend to wear standard hoodies made by Vans etc, which cost about £45 and offer virtually none of the Gyrfalcon's benefits. For a few extra quid, this is definitely worth it and gives the impression it will last far longer too. I would even pay a little more to ensure the product is environmentally-friendly and comes with non-plastic packaging.

So, to sum up, the Wunderbird Gyrfalcon hoodie is a well thought-through technical product, unique in being aimed directly at the birder market.

It is comfortable to wear, straightforward to use and confers some real benefits to the birder. It will not suit everybody as it has an younger, urban feel, but for birders who want comfort, and practical solutions for many long days in the field this could be for you.

The price is definitely reasonable and offers good value for money.

I would encourage Wunderbird to improve upon some of the details of the product, especially the fastenings, review the environmental credentials of the product and make these explicit both on the website and the product itself (to enable birders to make a decision based on facts), and improve upon the packaging – please, no single-use plastic! If/when Wunderbird get these things right, I can forsee the Gyrfalcon being a more regular sighting here in Britain!

Check out the Gyrfalcon and other products here:

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Limestone Cowboy #2

Headed out for the limestone pavements and upland hay meadows on the slopes of the mighty Ingleborough today, looking for some really cool limestone stuff around the National Nature Reserve and various YWT sites. There were major differences between the areas of pavement we looked at, from sites completely over-grazed by sheep, to those with a complete exclusion of grazing animals. The diverse areas without grazing really demonstrated what over-grazing is causing in our uplands.

Spot the difference!

Some real variation in pavement structure too, with areas of large smooth, stable slabs and other patches of shattered, wobbling clints in a gryke-riddled moonscape, all offering an ankle-snapping threat.

It is weird to think this was all the bed of a tropical shallow sea, millions of years ago.

Each gryke and depression contained a tiny ecosystem, with slight variations in depth and width of gryke creating different microclimates and hosting a range of plants, including some real specialist ferns, such as Limestone Oak Fern and Rigid Buckler Fern, along with Hard Shield Fern and the ubiquitous Hart's-tongue. Awesome plants abounded including Green Spleenwort, Saw-wort, Alpine Cinquefoil, Northern Bedstraw and Lesser Meadow Rue, all new for me.

A male Wheatear watched us botanise.

 Baneberry, with unripe green berries.

 Bloody Cranesbill
 Northern Bedstraw with distinctive whorls of four leaves around the stem.

 Hard Shield Fern
 Limestone Oak Fern.
Saw-wort - you can just see the saw-toothed leaf. The buds have a striking net pattern, and were more impressive than the open thistle-like flowers.

After a morning on the pavement, we headed on to check out how a local hardrock quarry was being reclaimed by nature, before heading into Ribblesdale to look for more plants. We nailed some stonking orchids; the diminutive and rather subtle Frog Orchids, hiding among the grass, and nearby, stunningly attractive Dark Red Helleborines, some of which were just coming into flower. Breathtaking!

 The tiny Frog Orchid

Dark Red Helleborine

Oh, and here is a Bulbous Buttercup, just because it is a nice pic, showing the reflexed sepals quite nicely!

Limestone Cowboy #1

Top weekend with Ian Powell (through Malham Tarn FSC) on Yorkshire's upland limestone, learning about the plants of these wonderful, picturesque landscapes. Our first day was spent walking through the grasslands north of Grassington, into Grass Wood YWT and then back along the river. The grasslands were parched, with some of the dry stone wall specialists literally burnt to a crisp by the drought conditions. Nevertheless, we found some great stuff. Dark Green Fritillaries were out in force, with at least 40 seen, mostly nectaring on Betony, one of the few flowering plants still blooming. A few Northern Brown Argus were still flitting about, chasing away the local Common Blues. 
Maybe a bit of video would work...

We found a few nice plants in the grassland, including Mountain Pansy. Both variations of the bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly, Volucella bombylans were around, the White-tailed Bumblebee-like Plumata and the Red-tailed Bumblebee-like Bombylans, but I only managed a pic of the former.

Into the cool, shade of the wood. This was a welcome relief! More interesting limestone plants were found here, along with a couple of bonuses, like the Bird's-nest Orchid, below, growing among the Beech litter.

Bird's-nest Orchid. This is as good as they get! No chlorophyll, they are orchid-cowboys, pinching all their nutrients from the Beech trees via their fungal partner.

I drop this photo in of a particularly well-marked Common Spotted Orchid from Askham Bog. Maybe a hybrid with Southern Marsh Orchid?

Monday, 25 June 2018

Pugsley Brothers

Today was a special day. Back in February, we Zeiss Yorkshire Terriers ran our Flyway Sale, to raise money for the Champions of the Flyway. Well, one of the items auctioned was a Yorkshire Coast Nature Wildlife Discovery Day, and today we took out the four souls who had donated generously and secured the day. Rich had asked me to co-lead and I was delighted to accept.

Linden (local botanist who tagged along), Alastair, Rich, Mark, Steve and Esther - real Champions of the Flyway!

We started the day in poignant fashion, with Turtle Doves. One of the iconic species which the Champions of the Flyway is trying to protect, we got great views of one searching for seeds in a bare arable field. Really delightful little birds. On we went to Wykeham where we arrived at a busy raptor viewpoint. Great views of a singing Tree Pipit were had plus lots of Red-necked Footmen moths.

Shortly, Rich called Goshawk, and a big adult female came cruising up the valley, panicking countless Woodpigeons out of the forest. She gained height and then suddenly, and spectacularly, rolled over, folder her wings and dropped like a stone after a Woodpigeon. The pigeon dived down and pelted straight into thick Spruce cover. The big hawk pulled up and glided off empty taloned. Another time! We were left breathless.

Shortly, Rich picked up another Goshawk, this time distantly and as I watched the Gos, a nearer shape crossed my view - surely a Honey Buzzard! Switching to my scope confirmed the distinctive shape and as it turned it revealed its white underparts - the pale male. Smart. The bird gradually circled nearer and eventually gave great views to the gang, allowing everybody to get scope views. I then tried a bit of sketchy phonescoped video.

As if this wasn't enough, another bird appeared, in heavy moult, and the male headed over for a bit of high altitude flirting, complete with high speed diving.

Honeys in love.

We took a much needed break at the superb cafe in Lockton, watching Swifts and House Martins chasing around the rooftops. Meanwhile, England kicked off against Panama in their second match of the 2018 World Cup. More of that later...

On to Dalby Forest for a long walk in the woods. The shade was very welcome, it was starting to heat up! I had been keen to see Pugsley's Marsh Orchid, a really rare species that is only known from a small area of Wales, and, yes, North Yorkshire. Also known as Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid, this distinctive plant was recently booted off the Norfolk list following DNA testing which showed specimens to be a subspecies of Southern Marsh Orchid. This meant the North Yorkshire orchids went up a rarity notch overnight! We soon came across a small piece of fen amidst the forest. What a corking spot. I scanned through my bins, and amid the Cotton Grass, there was a purpley orchid, surely a Pugsley's?

We approached carefully, and sure enough, these were Pugsley's. We checked through the features in the book, just to be sure but they were really quite distinctive, with the loose flower spikes, purple stems and lanceolate, upright leaves giving a really different impression to other marsh orchids. They were clearly doing well here; we counted over 70 spikes.

This individual had dark-flecked leaves.

The subtle, yet distinctive and exquisitely rare Pugsley's Marsh Orchid.

We had a good rummage around this spot. It was simply stunning, with Branched Bur-reed, Marsh Lousewort, Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Fen Bedstraw and lots more. Nearby, swarms of Azure Damselflies were emerging from the pond and a mighty Emperor Dragonfly cruised around battering 4-Spotted Chasers out of the way. Classic scenes!

We retired for tea and medals, or in actual fact, ice-cream and medals. A great day and a great way to celebrate the generosity of these four guys who were true Guardians of the Flyway.

I managed to get home and watch the match - England stuffed Panama 6-1. Unbelievable scenes!

 The Brothers Pugsley
Chalk Fragrant Orchid. An elegant flower.