Friday, 16 August 2019

Some of us have got it, some of us haven't!



Fantastic day yesterday with my colleagues hosting the Wildlife Zone at Countryfile Live at Castle Howard. We talked to thousands of people about Yorkshire's amazing wildlife and what they can do to help it thrive. A top day with top colleagues.

Here are two of them: Graham from my North Yorkshire team taking on Matt from the Yorkshire Peat Partnership at bean bag throwing! Who wins? Check out the video!

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Park Run Pacific Swift Mayhem!

Three kilometres into a very windy York Park Run and my mobile rang. I couldn't answer but glanced at the screen to see Tony Martin's name. This could only mean one thing: big bird news! I diverted off the running track, leapt over a fence and sprinted for my car. Not really, but had I have known what the bird was, I might have done that!

This spurred me on to the finish and as soon as I could get my breath back I listened to Tony's message: "Swift with a white rump at Hornsea - either Pacific or White-rumped!" Holy crap, batman! Now I have a little bit of painful history concerning swifts with white rumps at Hornsea Mere - see here - as back in October, I narrowly missed Britain's first ever White-rumped Swift at the very same spot through simple bad luck and timing (or being too lazy). Sweating profusely and shattered from the run, I realised I had to go for this bird and as I dashed upstairs for a post-run shower, Rich Baines rang confirming the news, and the twitch was on!

Picking up Rich on the outskirts of York, we sped east, assisted by the strong westerly and were heartened by news from Tony that the bird was still present from Kirkholme Point and had been identified as a Pacific Swift. We were both delighted with this news as Rich had seen the WRS last October and like me, hadn't seen PS in the UK.

Our nerves jangled and stress elevated as the sparkling waters of the mere were glimpsed through the roadside trees as we approached Hornsea. We speculated as to whether the bird would still be present. Such a mobile species could be miles away by the time we arrived. Perhaps the bad weather would hold it?

Arriving at the Mere, I threw the car along the potholed entrance track and into the car park. A gang of about 20 birders were braced into the keen wind at the end of the point and we rushed to join them. Drat! No sign of the swift for the last 20 minutes. The air above and in the lee of Swan Island was swarming with House Martins, Swallows and the scything forms of Swifts. The gusting wind was going to be frustrating, but Rich and me found a sheltered spot comparatively out of the wind and started to scan. This felt like it was going to be difficult...Tony and Dob were there and spurred us on, saying the bird stood out, being rakish thin with a long tail and obvious white rump. It had to be there somewhere!


Hornsea Mere in the storm. I first picked up the Pacific Swift to the left of the central island (Swan Island).

Over the Mere, which looked like the North Sea, complete with white capped waves, Little Gulls and Common Terns zipped about, amid a multitude of hirundines and a few Swifts. Birders around us were getting frustrated. Some had seen it earlier, others arriving later like us, had not. As is sometimes a strange phenomenon at twitches, some birders simply stopped looking, too daunted by the task at hand perhaps, or through sheer frustration. Nevertheless, with every birder not scrutinising the flock, there is one less pair of eyes to latch on to our target. One nearby birder said he was waiting for somebody to find it...Try yourself mate!!

More birders arrived. The 'not seen for ten minutes' soon turned into 'not for half an hour mate', and then suddenly there it was, in my scope, cruising over the distant trees, white rump blinking clearly. Sure enough it was a slender, rakish swift with an attenuated rear end, exactly as Tony had described it -really quite distinctive in actual fact. I called out that I'd got it and (apparently calmly according to Rich, though I didn't feel very calm at the time!) explained its movements allowing most of the gathered throng to get on the bird. Fantastic! I moved aside and let Rich get on the swift through my scope, cue big grins, hugs and high fives all round. What a great feeling to nail this absolute belting rarity!

The Pacific Swift cruised around for the next 15 minutes or so, sometimes disappearing behind the trees only to reappear after a minute or two. Most people present managed to get views and a couple of super sharp shooters managed some long range pics with their DSLRs - amazing skills!

Pacific Swift, Hornsea Mere, 10th August 2019. Photographed brilliantly by Will Scott @WillboneScott (very nice to meet you Will!)


As about 12.10pm, I last saw the swift over Swan Island. It dipped down behind the trees and by 12.30pm I hadn't seen it again. I don't think anybody saw it after this time until it was refound miles away over Easington Church shortly before dusk. We were indeed very lucky and this helped ease the pain of missing the White-rumped Swift back in October.

Also noted, a fine Hobby, five Little Egrets, 20+ Little Gulls.


Very happy Birding Dad. Thanks to Rich for the pic.

The last time I saw a Pacific Swift was following an operation in Cairns Hospital (Australia) back in 2017, so the bird brought some interesting memories back! Oh, and the Park Run. Not bad, 21 minutes 35, my third best time for a 5km.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Wheldrake critters

Yesterday, attempted to twitch the Flamborough Bottlenose Dolphins with the kids but was deterred by nightmarish traffic on the A64 east of York, so pulled a u-turn and went down Wheldrake Ings instead.

A smart Four-banded Longhorn Beetle was nectaring on riverside Burdock, along with c200 butterflies (counted by Addie), the best being a Small Copper. A Little Ringed Plover was hanging out on the Pool, along with three Green Sands, 30 Lapwings, several Teal and a couple of Little Egrets, including one marked HT. Plenty of Odonate action, with Black-tailed Skimmer, Emperor and Red-eyed Damselflies on the pool, along with Brown Hawker and Common Darter along the river.





Methley Little Bustard

I was left speechless when I checked my phone at breakfast to discover a male Little Bustard was at Methley, West Yorkshire! Vicky was at work and I had four kids to sort - panic! Fortunately, the owner of the two additional kids agreed to take there's back and my two too, so by 9am, my optics were in the car and I was heading south.

A short drive later and some kind gent let me look through his scope and I was amazed to see an absolutely stonking male Little Bustard casually walking around in a cut meadow, happily feeding. Scenes!



About 30 birders were squeezed on to a permissive path and the bird was showing about 150m away in the field behind the cows. Wearing shorts was a bad idea - Nettles! The LB walked about for the next 20 minutes or so, showing it's black and white neck and breast. The white on the foreneck met in a V, almost looking as if the bird was wearing a medal round it's neck! At about 10am it retired into the long grass at the foot of the far fence. It had a little preen and then hunkered down for a break. I gave it a while but it didn't reappear so though I best get back to Dad duties. A quick and dirty twitch and unbelievably my second Little Bustard in Yorkshire, following the bird at Fraisthorpe on New Year's Eve, 2014.





#Scenes! Another Yorkshire Little Bustard

Didn't think I'd be watching this corking male Little Bustard this morning on the ings at Methley, West Yorkshire. Absolute scenes! More to come later...



Monday, 5 August 2019

A Dolphin named Kylie

This is a (Short-beaked) Common Dolphin that lives in Fairlie Roads off the Isle of Cumbrae, near Largs, Scotland and has been named Kylie by the FSC Millport staff. There is some debate how long she has been here but possibly since the early Noughties. She hangs out round a large red buoy that marks the shipping channel. It is very unusual for a Common Dolphin to have left her pod and gone off on her own, and nobody really understands why she has done this and why she is so faithful to the large buoy. The buoy doesn't seem to attract fish, so perhaps it just gives her a familiar comfort in some way. Remarkably, the local Harbour Porpoises sometimes come along and hang out and they actively play together. Even more remarkable is that Kylie increases the frequency of her calls and the Harbour Porpoises lower the frequency of their calls, so they can communicate! Amazing! I had a go at filming her underwater from a kayak using a GoPro, my first attempt at such things, so I was pleased to get a clip of her at least, looking nice and chilled.


When we were out on the research vessel, she rapidly joined us to ride the bough wave much to the delight of us all board. She is such a fan of this that when a yacht pulled up and the sailors sat watching her, she rode up alongside, stopped, and smashed her tail repeatedly on the water surface as if to say 'get a move on!'. Really incredible to see.





Sunday, 4 August 2019

Out to Sea

My first Seabird and Whale trip of the year, in this the fifth year of Yorkshire Coast Nature S&W Trips!

The sea conditions looked dreadful by mid week and Friday's trip was cancelled and today's looked decidedly iffy. Fortunately, the forecast had improved and it dawned misty, with no wind and a light swell. Great! Having assembled the group, we were soon out on All My Sons with Sean, our skipper.

Sadly, despite the fab conditions, no Minke Whales showed today and the Bottlenose Dolphins stayed to the south. We did have a great time, with superb views of Bonxie (no pics from me as I had fishy hands as I was busy chumming!), a lovely inquisitive juvenile Arctic Tern, several Harbour Porpoises and Atlantic Grey Seals, along with lots of Puffins (and Pufflings!), Razorbills and Guillemots.

A fine time was had by all and a very enjoyable start to the whale-watching season.

Arctic Terns don't often approach the boat, but this inquisitive juvenile, flew in circles round the boat, seemingly interested to see if there was anything to eat. Juvenile Arctics are beautiful, compact with a short dark bill and pale, dusty grey upperwings, lacking the dark rear secondary bar of Common Terns. Their diminutive size is quite different from the lanky teenager look of a young Common Tern. Also note the dark cap which extends well below the eye, and the lack of lots of dark on the upper surface of the primaries.


Lots of confiding Fulmars today which seemed pleased with their handouts of Herrings.
 

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Glasgow Blue-winged Teal

Found myself with a colleague heading up to Millport on the little Isle of Cumbrae last week for a Field Studies Council Marine Mammals Training Course. Back in the spring, a smart drake Blue-winged Teal had rocked up in this part of Scotland and found it to it's liking. The duck was still present on the day we headed up north (11th July), so we stopped off for lunch at the delightful little Frankfield Loch nature reserve.
Frankfield Loch

The loch was a cracking little site, with a couple of Common Sandpipers, c50 Lapwings, lots of Teal, a few Tufted Ducks and, in the woodland, Broad-leaved Helleborines. Nice. Sadly, I couldn't find our quarry, so we walked up the nature trail to get a better view of the back of the loch. This paid off, and I picked up the sleeping BWT on a muddy island. My colleague was less than impressed as the bird had gone into eclipse and was snoozing. It was admitedly a bit underwhelming, but after a bit it woke up and started preening - slightly better! Only my fourth in Britain and first since a similarly dowdy drake at Berry Fen, Cambridgeshire in summer 2010. It is about time we had a nice spring drake at Wheldrake Ings, long overdue since the last accepted bird back in 1967.



Blue-winged Teal

Broad-leaved Helleborine




Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Beautiful Butterflies at Brae Pasture

Co-led a guided walk on the flank of Ingleborough with Colin Newlands, Natural England's Ingleborough NNR manager today. Brae Pasture YWT and High Brae (part of the NNR managed by NE) dazzled with wild flowers, including genuinely fragrant Chalk Fragrant Orchids, Limestone Bedstraw, Meadow Rue, Alpine Bistort and Rock Rose, to name but a few.

Highlights included two stunning Wood Tigers which were unexpected and a tick for me, along with several Northern Brown Argus butterflies, plus an egg we found on a Rock Rose leaf (!). Redstarts had young in the ghyll (the wooded valley) and a Wheatear or two were knocking about. Raptors were noticeable by their complete absence...

 Wood Tiger. Oof!
 Limestone Bedstraw, photobombed by Common Blue

 Northern Brown Argus
 The tiny wee Argus egg!
Brittle Bladder Fern, a limestone scree specialist.

Later on, Bernie and me took a long, steep walk back up over High Brae to look at a flush for Yorkshire Sandwort, a tiny mega rare plant that only grows in this area. We celebrated finding it exactly where Colin had said, only to discover later that we had seen Fairy Flax- doh! Back to the drawing board...


 F*****g Fairy Flax!

Stunning Staveley

Took some colleagues round Staveley NR today, one of the jewels in my work patch. Delighted to see the two Avocet chicks which hatched at the weekend and have clung on to life for a few days! The parents were very vigilant, driving off anything that came close.


Nearby, the Marsh Helleborines were coming into flower, providing a beautiful spectacle in the fen meadow. The site is buzzing, with dragonflies and butterflies everywhere, flitting over a multi-coloured riot of wild flowers while the songs of Sedge Warblers, Cetti's Warblers and Reed Buntings is a constant soundtrack. Gorgeous!


Gorgeous Marsh Helleborines



North Norfolk, scorchio!

It was the hottest weekend of the year so far and the Leadley clan were in North Norfolk. Not only were we lucky with the weather, but also with the birds. I didn't have a great deal of time to go birding, but managed to get a cracking view of the Squacco Heron which rocked up on Stiffkey flood first thing on Sunday enabling my Dad to nip out and see it. I saw my first British Squacco Heron in Norfolk, near Horsey Broad about twenty years ago. This bird was much smarter however, and much closer too!

Stiffkey Squacco Heron. I looked up the origin of the word Squacco and it is Italian apparently. And is the name for this species: so none the wiser really!

Titchwell Freshmarsh. Superb water level management by the RSPB team has created epic wader conditons. Nice work!

Later on, a superb hour was spent at Titchwell, looking through hordes of waders (350 (!) Avocet, 100 Black-tailed Godwit, 25 Bar-tailed Godwit, 6 Spotted Redshank, Green Sandpiper, 10 Dunlin, 40 Knot, Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, 20 Ruff etc) for a Lesser Yellowlegs. Sadly, it had flown off prior to our arrival. We got back to the car park and got ready to head back to York when a guy told me that it has just dropped back in! Well, it was too close to ignore, so I pegged it back to the freshmarsh and soon picked out this elegant wader, my first since my rejected bird from Wheldrake Ings in 2015! An elegant wader, short-billed with long legs, yellowish but heavily soiled by the gloopy mud. Long wings noticeable, giving the bird an attenuated look. A smart end to a fab weekend.



'Legs. Elegant wader, turning up at the eleventh hour!


Ashes Pasture: Small White Orchid at last!

Last year I tried and failed to find Small White Orchid on Ashes Pasture nature reserve, only to see them up the hill at Colt Park. Today, I took Paul Hudson, the environmental correspondent from the BBC to Ashes to film a piece for BBC Look North about how climate change may impact on upland wildlife. My luck was in (well, I had good directions), and I found three SWOs easily. They seemed to be thriving although Paul wasn't too impressed! The site is looking fantastic and our project is almost complete as work on Reyn Barn is almost at an end.

Ashes Pasture - how upland meadows should look!

Pen-y-Ghent, viewed from nr Selside. Notice how bright green the 'improved' meadows look, a Rye Grass monoculture, grown to produce lots of grass for silage to feed to dairy cattle during the winter and grazed to death by sheep the rest of the time.



Small White Orchid, an Ashes Pasture special that is doing well this year.

...

The average temperature in Yorkshire has increased by 0.6 degrees in the last fifty years. Not much you may think, but this is having an impact on our weather and the knock-on from this is clearly seen in our wildlife. Butterflies such as Speckled Wood and Ringlet are moving north, the latter having colonised the Ingleborough area in the last few years. We welcome the arrival of new species, but for how long will our upland species and those at the very southern limit of their natural range cling on, before conditions become inhospitable. In days gone by, as climatic fluctuations occurred, wildlife would have tracked north and south over the centuries. Today, intensive agriculture, driven grouse moors, roads, railways and urban areas present huge, impassable barriers to many species. If species can't shift their ranges, they will die out. This is now the reality in Britain for many species as the climate warms. For how long will we find Small White Orchid on the flank of Ingleborough?

Turtles clinging on

I failed to find Turtle Doves on my new survey square near Coneysthorpe this year, so it was good to find four birds north of Ebberston again this year. Three males were busy purring while a fourth, perhaps female bird was hanging out in the elders. Earlier, two Honey Buzzards, several Goshawks and a Tree Pipit had shown well at the Wykeham viewpoint.

Male Turtle Dove, nr Ebberstone, June 2019



Tansfastic Tansy Beetles

Plenty of Tansy Beetles seen next to the River Ouse in recent weeks. The riverbank south of the Naburn Swingbridge near Bishopthorpe is a good spot and several pairs were seen doing their best to keep the population going. This is a York speciality, with the tiny range of this jewel being along the Ouse either side of York. There have been some found in recent years at Woodwalton Fen, Cambridgeshire, but I suspect an introduction (along with the Purple Emperors that have turned up there!) as I can't believe this big shiny critter was overlooked previously as this well-monitored site.

Tansy Beetle, River Ouse nr Bishopthorpe, June 2019




Friday, 14 June 2019

British White Storks?

White Stork, Spain, August 2018.

The reintroduction of White Storks at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex has been grabbing the headlines in recent weeks, see here and here.

Knepp is well-known for (re)wilding and is an exemplar of what can be achieved by allowing natural processes to return. The impact on biodiversity of the Knepp project has been huge and Knepp has become a leading light for other estate and landowners to follow.

Knepp's latest venture, to 'reintroduce' White Storks is a little troubling to me and feels like an attempt to secure a USP that will generate publicity and income. I don't have a problem with that per se, as the owners of Knepp have to bring in income to support their estate and to pay their bills, but from a nature conservation point of view, the arguments seem weak. Why should I care? Well, this is important as conservationists must maintain their integrity and our work as a movement must stand up to close scrutiny.

The reasons for my troubled feelings are as follows: Firstly, White Storks are not under threat (IUCN Least Concern), so why put effort into this species? Well, perhaps it is because they are big, showy and attractive - easy to for visitors to spot and don't really create any enemies in the wider landscape. They build massive great nests and seem to be happy living alongside people.

Second, and perhaps the main contention in my mind is that they were never really part of our native avifauna. Sure, storks turn up each year as overshoots on their return spring migration from Africa, but did they ever breed here regularly?

The oft-cited record of a pair on St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416 supports the point. If storks had been a common part of the scene, this record would not have been that special and would have long been forgotten. This must have been a remarkable, possibly unique record at the time, suggesting that storks had not nested in the UK at least in spoken history at that time. Other quoted evidence is the connection in place names. This is also seems dubious; historians have stated that in the early part of the last millennium, there was little differentiation in the names of long-legged wetland species and references to storks could well have been to herons or egrets. Therefore, place names linked to storks may be a red herring, as they could have been named after the local herons. An example of this is near my local patch, Wheldrake Ings. Adjacent to the Ings on higher land, is Storwood, presumably named after the presence of 'storks'. But look closer and it seems strange that on the other side of the ings, again on slightly higher ground is a large heronry, in a wood, which thrives to this day. No storks, Grey Herons (and recently Little Egrets!). Records of heronries in this area go back to the early 1400s, a similar time to the Edinburgh White Stork nest. But there are no records of White Storks at Storwood or anywhere in the Lower Derwent Valley area. Now, if people recognised the White Storks at Edinburgh, surely they would have identified them if they were in the Lower Derwent Valley too? So to me, the name Storwood is far more likely to refer to the Grey Herons nesting in the wood than to the presence of storks. And the same could be true of other place names linked to storks.

Sadly for White Storks, like virtually everything else, they were included in feast menus, records of which were often meticulously kept. However, written analyses of these accounts have found it hard to prove the source of the birds and other animals provided at these lavish banquets. Storks may well have been imported from the continent for food. Mediaeval feast records from the LDV area reference Spoonbills, Grey Herons and Bitterns, but no White Storks.

My last point is linked to folklore. Across the native range of White Storks, there are many cultural references to White Storks. Even us Brits all know the folktale of White Storks carrying babies in their beaks! And this is partly due to the previously mentioned close ties to people. Storks benefitted from woodland clearance for agriculture and exploited buildings as nesting sites, something that was often actively encouraged, as storks were seen as omens of good luck in many places. I could go on, but a quick internet search will show you all the cultural references. So if White Storks were widespread in Britain, why are there no such similar references in British folklore?

I am therefore surprised that Natural England licensed this project as a 'reintroduction' when the evidence of White Storks being anything other than a scarce spring overshoot is scant. Nevertheless, in a climate where wildlife needs every bit of help it can get and as many advocates as possible, maybe the bigger picture shouldn't be ignored. If the presence of storks inspires people to get into nature or at least appreciate it a little more, then it is a good thing I guess. I applaud Knepp for their ambition, it could even lead to a Victorian-esque game of oneupmanship among the large estates, all vying to have the wildest estate, and hopefully the habitats and less sexy species will benefit on the back of the storks - carried in their beaks perhaps... So, good luck Knepp, I hope your project works, but just be a little more honest in your narrative!




Sunday, 9 June 2019

Tiny bees

Maybe the reason I had never seen a Common Yellow-face Bee was that they are so tiny! Philip noticed several sitting around on leaves in the garden this morning so I got a couple of pics. I am going to charge my drill and go out and make a load of holes in the tree stump to help them out. Also, nearby a tiny Ruby-tailed Wasp sp was lurking, possibly a parasite of the Yellow-faces?

 
Common Yellow-face Bees.

The Spring that keeps on giving!

I have never had the chance to go looking for a Black-headed Bunting in Britain as they have always tended to turn up in private gardens, or on remote islands off the west or north coast of Scotland. So, when Craig Thomas found a handsome male BHB along Old Fall hedge at Flamborough on Friday afternoon, I realised I had a chance to finally see one. My old mate Philip was visiting for the weekend and although he had seen dozens in Armenia the week before, he too had never seen one in Britain, so with positive early news on Saturday morning, we headed east for Flamborough.

Old Fall hedge, east side.


We joined a small group of birders standing on the road verge scanning down the east side of Old Fall hedge and to our delight, our colourful quarry was happily sitting on a Hawthorn bush about 50 metres away. Great stuff! A chunky bunting, with bright yellow underparts and black head, and a surprisingly bright rufous nape and mantle.

Having missed this species in Cyprus a few years ago, this was a world tick for me and thoroughly appreciated. After enjoying good views and helping arriving birders to see it, the bird suddenly flicked off the bush and disappeared.

Black-headed Bunting. Smart dude.


A little later and despite some rather selfish and impatient photographers walking down the hedge (which risked flushing the bird) the bunting popped back up, this time much closer and head on, enabling us to enjoy the golden yellow underparts and jet black head. Again, the bird chilled for a minute or two, and then dropped back into the crop field, presumably to feed. He reappeared further along the hedge where for a while he interacted with a male Yellowhammer, seemingly getting the better of the local bird.

News that the Subalpine Warbler had been seen again at the golf course willows prompted our departure and we headed down there, where we bumped into a few of our friends.

Golf course twitch. Spot two Yorkshire Terriers, me and Mark P at the left hand end. Also note Craig Thomas having a sit down. It's clearly hard work all this rarity finding!


We hung out and soon saw the little grey Subalp feeding through the rose bushes, Willows and the large Sycamore. It was very actively feeding, alongside Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat. Try as I might, I couldn't see the white in the tail very well, which would be essential to help with specific identification (Moltoni's vs Western vs Eastern) so thought I'd try and video it with my phone. This was successful, though sadly didn't help matters as it kept it's tail closed most of the time. Nevertheless, the bird showed well every now and again and it was enjoyable birding with good mates in warm June sunshine.

 
 

Female (presumed Western) Subalpine Warbler. Other photos by Trev Charlton revealed the tail pattern, making Western the most likely species.

Across the head, the rainclouds were piling up ominously and we noticed many Burnet Moth sp chrysalises in the grassland, along with a few Northern Marsh Orchids. We had a short seawatch, from the new hide, with the most noticeable thing being the large numbers of Painted Lady butterflies moving across the headland, presumably part of a large immigration. 

 
 
Flamborough lighthouse, Northern Marsh Orchid, Burnet moth sp chrysalis

Later on, the family arrived and we headed to North Landing to check out the caves and the intertidal stuff, noting a tiny Bee Orchid in the grassland next to the slipway. Razorbills, my fave auk, gave good views, but Puffins were sparse. Thoroughly soaked - the rain had arrived - we finished the day at the YWT Living Seas Centre, where the kids did some marine-themed activities as part of World Ocean Day.

 
 
 Puffin, plus Razorbills, North Landing.

A great day at the Great White Cape in the Spring that keeps on giving!

Garfish skull, courtesy of Ant Hurd, Living Seas Centre. Found on South Landing beach today.