Saturday, 27 October 2018

Cape Yorkshire Tystie!

I have just about thawed out after enduring this morning's Arctic blast for four hours, complete with sleet, lashing rain and gale-force northerlies at Flamborough Head. Why would I do this? Well, fortune favours the brave and all that, and with the forecast looking terrifying, the prospect of some good birds in the North Sea was too good to miss. So, out east to Cape Yorkshire, meeting Dunc Poyser in a deserted lighthouse car park in pouring rain. Gear on, we headed down the track to the fog station. Remarkably, in the dawn light and dreadful conditions, Fieldfares and Blackbirds were arriving in off the sea. How do they survive this?

We hunkered in behind the fog station wall and began the scan. Ducks were coming north in good numbers, mostly Wigeon, Teal and Common Scoter, the former undoubtedly having been blown south of their intended destinations, and correcting themselves by heading back north into the teeth of the gale.

Common Scoters, battling into the fierce northerly.

Few seabirds seemed to be in evidence this early. A gang of Flamborough regulars arrived, settling in with us. While this was going on I picked up two small auks heading north. They were tiny; surely Little Auks. I found myself muttering, like the woman on the Jaws movie who sees the shark heading into the 'pond', but didn't quite get the words out; it was too late and they'd rounded the wall. Gone. Doh!  \Move on... A Short-eared Owl came in-off. More ducks. Among the commoner flocks, a dazzling drake Long-tailed Duck, a trio of athletic Pintail, a Tufted Duck, several Red-breasted Mergansers spearheading a Wigeon flock, three chubby Goldeneye and an aloof, solitary Velvet Scoter. It was very cool to see real wild Mallards migrating, looking superb in the morning light.

Flamborough Seawatchers. This may be the last time I seawatch out here - the new seawatching hide is underway!

We nipped off to put tickets on our cars, before returning to the fray. As luck would have it, Craig and Lee had just found a Black Guillemot, which fortunately for us had landed on the sea with a Razorbill. Surely it was still there somewhere! After a bit, I found the Razorbill and staying on it, up popped the Black Guillemot! Great - a new Yorkshire bird for me. After a minute or so, it took off and headed north and I managed a bit of sketchy phone-scoped video:

Tystie (Black Guillemot) heading north off the Fog Station, Flamborough

Seabirds were fewer in number; we had one Sooty and ten Manx Shearwaters, one Arctic, four Pomarine and ten Great Skuas, two Fulmars, and several Red-throated Divers. The group picked up two more north-bound Little Auks but sadly I didn't get on to them. Dunc had a date with a halloween party in Ely, so had to head off and the rest of the gang headed for shelter in South Landing, leaving Johnny Mac and myself to freeze to death on the clifftop. The wind had swung more northeasterly and was beating us up between heavy squalls that piled down the North Sea. By 11am, we'd both had enough so headed round to South Landing. Down at the beach, a smart first-winter Little Gull was feeding among the Black-heads and a couple of Mediterrean Gulls (first and second winter) were also blogging about. A Great Northern Diver was offshore, along with a good flock of Common Scoter. A couple of skuas went south far out, presumably Poms.

Little Gull, top (at the back of the flock), and second winter Med Gull (top left) South Landing

It was still raining and the wind was strengthening even more, so I decided to head for Castle Howard to see if anything had blown in. Duncan Bye beat me to it however, so I diverted to Hes East, which was bereft of birds, save two Snipe, two Pochard and several Tufties. Happy with my Tystie tick at Cape Yorkshire I headed home. I was still cold.

Post Script.
Then, to my simultaneous horror and delight, Dunc picked up two adult Pomarine Skuas heading over Wheldrake Ings just after 4pm. Boom! A first for York and much deserved. Well gripped, as I was in a shop in the Designer Outlet! Cutting short my shopping trip, I checked Hes East again, hoping desperately that the Poms might have dropped in for a drink, or to roost, but to no avail. Maybe tomorrow...

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Birding dawn 'til dusk

A long, enjoyable day at Flamborough, partly spent with fellow Bishopthorpian, Paul Brook. Good numbers of Blackbirds were the most noticeable feature, plus three Yellow-browed Warblers, a flyover Lapland Bunting, two Ring Ouzels and c20 Bramblings. Sadly, clear skies last night had enticed the Olive-backed Pipit to head south and the Barred Warbler failed to perform again, despite showing well first thing. The undoubted highlight of the day was meeting up with friends and listening to Captain Terrier Mark Pearson's excellent talk about the Champions of the Flyway, as part of the MigWeek 2018 and our winning of the Guardians award. Great stuff.

 Common Kestrel, New Fall

 Yellow-browed Warbler, Holmes Gut YWT

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Ninja Sandpiper!

Check out the Marske Spotted Sandpiper catching sandhoppers with lightning fast reactions like a shorebird ninja!

Birdo Weekender: Flamborough 11-14th October

To be honest, the forecast didn't look great. Very strong southerlies on Saturday and rain and north-westerlies on Sunday. Nevertheless, after a relatively quiet Friday birding the headland (fewer birds than yesterday, though a handful of lingering Yellow-browed Warblers still), Team Birdo (Ben Green, Simon Patient, Mark Hawkes, Duncan Poyser and myself) convened in the 'ultimate luxury' at 3 Firecrest Cove, Thornwick, full of enthusiasm for a weekend birding the Great White Cape, at the start of the Filey and Flamborough Bird Observatories' Migration Week. Surely, these crazy winds would drop something from the south in?

Team Birdo, Thornwick

A caravan at Thornwick. Ultimate luxury...


There was a bit of passage during the morning, with small numbers of Song Thrushes and Redwings 'in off', seven Yellow-browed Warblers in our circuit of Thornwick, plus a Brambling or two and three Ring Ouzels showing well in Holmes Gut.


Birding was difficult in the strong winds, and we decided to head north to twitch the Spotted Sandpiper at Marske, just south of Redcar. After a rather arduous drive - thanks Mark - we were soon watching this confiding Yank wader on the beach just north of the village. It showed very well after a while, coming too close to focus my scope on! The bird was happily catching flies and sandhoppers among the detritus on the strandline. It had a curious habit of stalking a particular critter in slow-mo before shooting it's beak out and grabbing the morsel, ninja style. A very distinctive, short-winged, compact bird, with neat white eye-ring, strong supercilium, dark cap and bright yellow legs. Nice to see Mike Pratt at the twitch, Northumberland Wildlife Trust CEO - top bloke.

Juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. Without spots.

Heading back south, we stopped at Holbeck, Scarbados, to mop up an early returning Mediterranean Gull, a smart second winter bird, before returning to Thornwick. We did the northside again, with little new to be found, save a Whinchat and a Redstart. Headed to the site restaurant for beers and snacks. A top night, if not the most bird-filled of days, but great to bird with old mates.

Med Gull, and the lads at Marske.


...dawned golden and magical.

This didn't last long and shortly, the temperature dropped and rain arrived. We toughed out a walk round the north side and saw very little, save a single Yellow-brow in Holmes Gut. The highlight was Jim Morgan and Ana showing us some of the birds they had mist-netted, including Lesser Redpoll, Yellowhammer and a Redstart. A real treat and informative too, as Jim explained how he aged the birds. The birds' weights were all good, so Jim assumed they had been present a while and had had chance to feed and replenish their fat stores for their onward journeys.


With the wind getting up and the rain getting heavier, we decided South Landing might be a good option. Wrong, it was equally wet and windy. Back to the caravan for much-needed bacon butties and tea, both providing welcome relief. Nothing was being found elsewhere to give us much optimism to brave out the wet for a few more hours, so we decided to cut our losses and head home, earning a few brownie points from our families.


A little after getting home, news broke of a Pacific Swift at Hornsea. Dammit! I didn't really have time to get there before the light went, although looking back I might have done it - just. Worse still, a little later, the news came that photos had shown the bird was actually the UK's first White-rumped Swift. What a gripper and a frustrating end to a rather damp day. Birding is just like that sometimes. So, a lesson learned the hard way. If you've got your passport stamped and it's October, stay out until dark- just in case!

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Fall

Golf Course Willows, Flamborough

I can't believe that this is only my second trip of the autumn to Flamborough. This year has run a similar course to last, dominated by westerlies and apart from the occasional bit of excitement has been lacking in birds. This feeling of gloom is perhaps exacerbated by the epic autumn of 2016 and its strong easterly flow and torrent of rarities. Last week's trip to Flamborough with Philip was fun, with Short-eared Owl in-off by the lighthouse, a smart summer plumaged Great Northern Diver along with about 50 Red-throated Divers heading south. But as for the land, it was incredibly, exasperatingly quiet.

Today, with southeasterlies and early rain, things looked more promising. I was at Wheldrake Ings for dawn but failed to see yesterday's Bearded Tits, or indeed anything else, save 49 Wigeon, two Tawny Owls and c20 Redwings. Craig showed me a Merveille Du Jour moth he'd trapped - belting!

I failed to find any Golden Plover flocks nearby to grill, so off east I went, via a bacon butty at Fridaythorpe, which showed well briefly (until I ate it).

One of six Yellow-browed Warblers.

At Flamborough, I headed first for the Golf Course willows, where almost immediately, a Yellow-browed Warbler greeted me. My first of the autumn - blimey, it's almost mid-October! The little guy zipped around in blowy willows with a couple of Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap. To my delight, flocks of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Skylarks were coming in-off, along with some small gangs of Bramblings. A Rock Pipit was hanging out with a squad of Meadow Pipits on the fairway. The Fall was happening. The skies cleared and the birds kept coming, along with Terrier captain Mark Pearson who appeared along the clifftop path. Great to see something Bearded at last!!

Rock Pipit, with Meadow Pipit on the golf course.

I headed round to Holmes Gut via the Flamborough chippy, which was even more disappointing than dipping the Bearded Tits. A measly portion of soggy, tepid chips. Poor form.

Ring Ouzel. Always a delight to see these hardy thrushes.

Nice to see some familiar faces at Holmes, and great to meet Tony Dixon, and the birds were piling in here, too. Great birding! Between 1pm and 2.30pm, I/we had four Yellow-browed Warblers, Hawfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, three Blackcaps, two Chiffchaffs, c70 Bramblings, three Ring Ouzels, Corn Bunting, c100 Redwings, 10 Fieldfares and 150 Redwings.

A report of a Harrier sp near Old Fall reinforced my plan to visit the plantation before heading home, so I went back round to the south side. I failed to see the harrier, which had made it's way over North Marsh and then over Andy Hood's head who was still in Holmes Gut. In the stretch of hedge between the Old Fall steps and the first perpendicular hedge was another Yellow-brow, Whinchat, Wheatear, Redstart, a Ring Ouzel and a couple of Bramblings. Fantastic Flamborough! Old Fall was surprisingly quiet, with a Chiffchaff and a couple of Goldcrests all it was willing to give up.

Redstart, Brambling.

But today really belonged to the thrushes. It was just incredible seeing so many Song Thrushes coming in off the sea, a passage that continued throughout my time on the Head. It was nice to see a first-winter in the hand at Holmes, courtesy of Jim who was busy ringing. They are just so beautiful. At the end of the day, across the road from Old Fall Steps, 53 Song Thrushes, c30 Redwings, two Wheatears and a Fieldfare fed together with some rather bemused Pheasants, in a tilled field, providing a really remarkable sight. Marvellous. I can't wait to return tomorrow!

Simply stunning Song Thrushes

Thursday, 27 September 2018


I never thought I would write a blog post about twitching a Beluga. 

The possibility of seeing one of these white Arctic whales in UK waters was simply unimaginable, so when one was found happily swimming about in the Thames Estuary near Gravesend by Dave Anderson (@Ipterodroma), I could not believe it, but the video on his ecstatic tweet was unequivocal. A Beluga in the Thames. Amazing!

Now, Gravesend is a long way from York, and it was the middle of the working week. My mind whirred. I had long dreamed of seeing this unique species, but a trip to the St Lawrence River or Hudson Bay in Canada was really out of reach for me, at least in the near future. So, to get a chance of seeing one four hours from home was very exciting and too good an opportunity to miss. 

By the evening, a selection of people I know had twitched it and by all accounts the whale was not some hopeless, moribund case like the Northern Bottlenose Whale that sadly died up the Thames a few years ago. An estuarine species, Belugas are very capable of navigating around cloudy river waters, using their pronounced echolocation system to find food. This whale, despite being a long way from home, seemed to be very active, feeding normally and swimming up and down a stretch of the Thames, commuting between Gravesend and Tilbury in Essex. I would not have been as keen to see this animal if it was at death's door, but as this was not the case, I hatched a plan. My old Mark Hawkes from Cambridgeshire was keen to go too, but we decided we'd wait on news, as it would be a long trek. 

Shortly before seven the next morning, the news came that there was no sign of the Beluga despite near perfect viewing conditions. Nevermind, it looked like it was not to be after all. I messaged Mark and we both went to work, although I packed my gear - just in case! 

Then, at 9.12am a tweet announced that it was back! I messaged Mark, said I'd be round his by midday, organised friends to pick up the kids, sorted out a dog walker and then got permission from my boss to have an emergency day off. Fire up the Quattro!


Five hours later, Mark and me arrived in Gravesend under a sky the colour of Marsh Gentians, warmed by balmy autumnal sunshine. We had struggled to get recent gen on the Beluga's whereabouts but took a punt on crossing the river to the Kent side; at least the light would be behind us, making viewing easier. As we approached Gravesend, a tweet from an acquaintance confirmed this was the right choice: the Beluga was still showing! Superb! We were getting close.

Down Mark Lane to the back of the Gravesend docks, park the car and out on to the riverbank path. Out of the car, gear on, I clipped a kerb and went sprawling face-first on to the concrete. My scope whacked me on the back of the head as my knees simultaneously hit gravelly concrete, in a huge clatter of optics and flesh. Two big holes tore in my jeans and searing pain shot down my right leg, along with a stream of blood; my right wrist twisted and grazed along the floor, and people came rushing over to see if I was ok. I think Mark struggled to hold back the giggles! 

Untangling myself from a web of straps, and peeling myself off the concrete, the adrenaline coursing through my body got me over the pain in an instant - we had a Beluga to see! I limped off down the path, the nearby landlord of the Ship and Lobster pub shouting "It's a 20 minute walk, lads" in broadest cockney into the dust we left in our wake. My knee was killing. Scanning through the bins, I could see a crowd of people gathered on the shore about 2KM away. Cripes! 

I suggested we maybe try and catch one of the nearby ponies that were grazing the riverbank to ride down the shoreline. Mark wasn't keen, so I limped on. 

What seemed an eternity later, but was probably 15 minutes, we stopped for a scan, and the shining white body of the Beluga broke the surface, glinting in the afternoon sun. Beluga!!!!!!

The pain vanished, and we scampered on down to the crowd. Within minutes, the whale casually surfaced again, about 500m out in the river. Wow! It blew as the round melon-shaped head broke the surface and a beady eye peeped out of the river, just above a stubby little beak. Three more breaths and the whale dived, with a slightly more arched tail stock. 

Five minutes later, and the Beluga surfaced again, this time really close, only 100m out. Incredible! Mark nailed it with his phone through his scope - awesome work! This was just stunning. The Beluga seemed to be feeding around the large moored barges. It would breath three to five times in succession, sometimes covering barely any distance, other times, actively moving  twenty or thirty metres between breaths. It would then dive and stay down for three to five minutes. Often it would stay in the same general area for several series of breaths and dives, but then moved on and would reappear a way away. Some absolutely massive ships came out of the docks and headed east down the river in the shipping channel, but the Beluga stayed well away, keeping much closer in to the side out of harm's way. Nearby, a rib from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue kept a watchful eye on proceedings, ensuring nothing untoward happened. Nobody seemed intent on coming to look in a boat, so they could relax and enjoy the spectacle themselves. 

A good crowd had gathered, many were birders, but plenty of  'normal' people too, keen to see this intrepid traveller for themselves. Here and there, film crews jostled for position and pestered onlookers for interviews. Meanwhile, the Beluga didn't notice, and happily carried on doing its thing. 

After a couple of hours of soaking up this once-in-a-lifetime experience, we bade farewell to this long-distance traveller that had provided so much excitement and enjoyment and wished it well, hoping it may find its way back north, if indeed that was its desire.

The view from Gravesend towards one of the barges.

Little Blue

Some flowers kind of catch my attention when thumbing through Rose. Not sure why, but the gentians are one gang that I have always felt are that bit special. It could be that some are rare, or maybe that they are indicators of really top quality habitat. I have seen plenty of purple Autumn Gentians over the years at various chalk grassland sites, but one I really wanted to see was the bright blue Marsh Gentian. This is a rare plant, an inhabitant of damp heathland, rather than marshes. I had found out that they grow on Strensall and Skipwith Commons near York. With my colleague Bernie, I went looking for them at Strensall Common a couple of weeks ago, without success. Mind you, it's a big place! With some local gen, I gave Skipwith Common a try and this time my luck was in. Well, sort of! It was pouring down and the three flowers I found were all closed-up. Oh well, getting closer! The weather looked more promising this week, so I headed back on Tuesday lunchtime and sure enough a couple of these gorgeous little blue flowers had opened. And what a treat! A really stunning little flower, growing in short, acid turf, among Cross-leaved Heath, Tormentil and a variety of grasses. Stunning!

Marsh Gentians, Skipwith Common, near York

The People's Walk for Wildlife - 22nd September 2018

Coming soon....

Monday, 17 September 2018

York Birding Trip: Frampton Marsh and Fairburn Ings, Sunday 16th September 2018

Frampton Marsh RSPB

Frampton Marsh, viewed from the seawall.

After a hassle-free journey down to deepest Lincolnshire, we met up with the York Birding gang in the car park at Frampton Marsh. It was dry, but blowing a hoolie from the southwest; not too conducive to good birding unless you are seawatching in Cornwall! Anyway, we made our way to the big lagoon by the RSPB centre. One of the star attractions, an adult Long-billed Dowitcher had been present for over a week and had been reported already, so we started grilling a huge flock of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits, hoping to find this Snipe-sized Yank wader. After a while it became obvious the bird was either hidden in the middle of the flock, or was elsewhere, and the latter was confirmed when Jane got some gen from the site staff a little later. A solitary Bar-tailed Godwit was with the Blackwits, but soon flew off, presumably to find some more closely-related friends. Lots of other birds were present, including a brief Little Stint with some Dunlin, a few Ruff, distant Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plovers and Snipe. A Cetti's Warbler sang from a reed-lined ditch adjacent to the car park, and a few migrants headed over - Yellow Wagtail and Meadow Pipits. We headed towards the seawall following our Dowitcher Gen.

We carefully checked every patch of water we saw and this soon paid off when I picked up the distant Dowitcher, busy probing the water in a small creek. It showed well, but distantly and viewing was made a little more complicated due to the strength of the wind!

 Long-billed Dowitcher, looking rather short-billed...

York birders.

We carried on the circuit having admired a flock of spangly Golden Plovers, looking stunning in the early autumn sunshine. I was keen to look for Sea Aster bee. It was certainly warm enough and there was certainly a lot of flowering Sea Aster, but the gale was presumably keeping the bees in more sheltered places, so we drew a blank. This was amply made up for with some great birding and a lively Stoat. A Merlin whipped across the marsh, evading many of the group but a few sharp eyes picked the bird up. A Marsh Harrier hunted across the saltmarsh (Saltmarsh Harrier perhaps?) flushing Spotted Redshanks and Teal. From the seawall the Long-billed Dowitcher was a little closer and we enjoyed further views.
The Long-billed Dowitcher watches coyly as a juvenile Black-tailed Godwit wades in deep.

Nearby, a flock of 12 Spotted Redshanks gave great views, along with a couple of gorgeous Greenshanks, several Little Egrets and a flightly flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers.

 Greenshank and Spotted Redshank

 Elegant Spotshanks

A single Barnacle Goose of dubious origin dropped in from high up, and later we picked out a solitary Pink-footed Goose, which may have had more genuine wild credentials. Three Pintails were among freshly-arrived Wigeon and a cute juvenile Little Stint showed well from the 360 Hide. A rumour of a Curlew Sandpiper was perhaps more wishful-thinking than reality however!

Part Two: Fairburn Ings

We felt we had given Frampton a good grilling and decided to head back north. A few good birds had been seen over the weekend at Fairburn back in 'God's own' so that's where we headed. With a bit of gen, we met up at Lindike and were soon scanning New Flash looking for the reported Cattle Egret. Plenty of cattle, but no sign of any little white herons. Not to be deterred, we headed round to the hide. A fine juvenile Spoonbill was cavorting in the water and a Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Pintails and Black-tailed Godwits were on the flash. A Marsh Harrier flew past. Emanuela suggested that we would have a chance of spotting the egret from up the new trail which goes up the side of a large hill, so we headed up there. True to her word, after a long uphill slog, we reached the path along the hill and after a few minutes, Emanuela nailed it, spotting the Cattle Egret distantly back at New Flash! Eleven Spoonbills were impressive, but we didn't linger as we were keen to get a closer look at the egret.

The result of a successful breeding season at Yorkshire's only Spoonbill colony. Awesome scenes!

Our first view of the Cattle Egret. Good eyes Emanuela!

Back down to Lindike and the egret had obligingly moved on to a gate post, where it posed nicely, enjoying the evening sunshine. Close-by, four Whinchats were flycatching from the weed tops, giving great views.

It turns out it is not easy phone-scoping white birds in bright sunlight against a dark background!

This turned out to be the grand finale to a lovely day out with the York Bird Club. For more info about future trips, check out the website.