Sunday, 29 July 2018

Steven and the Bumblebee

At the beginning of June, I had the privilege to attend a course on bees at Malham Tarn FSC. Now Malham Tarn is a cool place -fab wildlife in fab scenery- and the FSC do a top job of looking after their guests. However, what I was really excited about was the fact that Steven Falk would be running the course - and he is seriously ace.

Bloody Cranesbill, Malham Tarn FSC



The weather was a bit cool too; it dawned foggy and drizzling on Saturday morning. In fact, the visibility was so bad, I nearly got lost on my dawn run round the tarn, which is not that easy to do, as there is only one track round!

Fortunately, the weather brightened up, and tempted some of the local bumblebee species out. One that I was really keen to see was Bilberry Bumblebee, a scarce upland species. We were lucky and found several nectaring on Water Avens in the meadow below the field centre. They are absolutely stunning bees, a veritable fruit salad, with a great big furry apricot of an abdomen and pale lemon yellow thorax.

 Bilberry Bumblebee, headfirst in the Water Avens

Next on the menu was Moss Carder Bee, similar to your everyday Common Carder Bee- if it has been crossed with an Afghan Hound that is! Mike Hunter (Tees-side birder, orchid hunter and bumblebee fanatic), Steve and me took an evening walk on the fen (the others went off to have a rest) and I had the delightful sight of Steve leaping over a ditch to sweep up a Moss Carder candidate in his net. Crazy scenes! This isabelline fur-ball was really quite distinctive and the following day we saw a few more hanging out on the Water Avens.

Moss Carder Bee

Less easy was Bombus cryptorum, the enigmatic Cryptic Bumblebee. We found a few good candidates although the one below is probably B. lucorum - White-tailed Bumble. All in all, we nailed ten bumbles; Common Carder, Moss Carder, Red-tailed, Early, Garden, White-tailed, Cryptic, Bilberry, Tree, Gypsy Cuckoo and one solitary bee, Common Furrow Bee.

White-tailed Bumblebee


Lots of other good wildlife around vying for my attention, including a fishing Otter in the tarn (caused a twitch when I found that!), young and very squeaky Long-eared Owl chicks in the woods, Redstarts, Tree Pipits, and this rather fine Common Lizard, enjoying the thermal properties of recycled plastic boardwalk!


And as for Steven, well, you should never meet your heroes, right? Well, Steve turned out to be a thoroughly top bloke, very funny, completely manic, and with a knowledge for nature the size of a planet. And what is more, he has an incredibly generous nature, meaning he loves to share his enthusiasm and learning with everybody, no matter your experience or interest. Awesome! If you haven't got his bee book, then get it! And in the meantime check out his unbelievably cool Flickr sites - his pics are far better than mine!

Steven and the Moss Carder Bumblebee

Monochrome morning

The door of the arid furnace finally fell off last week, and we have been deluged with rain and golf ball-sized hail, and frazzled by lightning and thunderbolts. But boy, is it a relief to feel fresh air and rain on my face!

Despite an early start for the Yorkshire Coast Nature Whale and Seabird Trip I was leading yesterday, I decided to get up early, not quite at the crack of dawn, but early enough for a Sunday. The rain had started but this would not deter me in my quest for waders. Down to Wheldrake Ings and the familiar sight of Duncan's car greeted me. Down to the hide to say hello to my mate and find out what he had found. Not a lot different to yesterday was the news, but that was good enough for me.

 The monochrome view from Pool Hide. Currently, York's answer to North Scrape!

For the next couple of hours, we enjoyed the relative comfort of Pool Hide as the rain poured down, refreshing the cracked, barren mud of the lagoon. The wind gusted, but was at our backs, so we were sheltered. And best of all, there were waders; and they were close! A quintet of Snipe probed long bills into the globulous gloop, whilst a hat-trick of Common Sandpipers skittered along the back edge, tail wagging and nervous. The black and white forms of Green Sandpipers picked here and there, eight in all: it is always a joy to welcome these excitable travellers back, with their delightful 'Too-wee-wee-wee' call.

But here, close-to, a more elegant shape, with bold head stripes and beautifully white-notched upperparts, and longer shanks, a juvenile Wood Sandpiper. A gorgeous wader, even more attractive than the adult that was here a few weeks ago. This bird, possibly born in Norway, or maybe even Scotland, is heading down to Southern Europe, or perhaps West Africa for the winter, gracing us for a few days with its presence.

 Green Sandpiper (front), with Wood Sandpiper

 
 
 
 
 Wood Sand.

Nearby, a drake Garganey filtered who-knows-what from the soup. He seemed to be enjoying his breakfast.
Garganey, eclipse drake. Note the white edging on the tail. Not the white mark shown by a Teal, but showing that care must be taken not to discount a bird like this if the head is not visible.


We walked round to Swantail Hide, slightly melancholy about its imminent demolition, although happy that it will be replaced by a better structure in the next couple of months. A young Grey Heron eyed us suspiciously through the monochrome morning light, rain still battering down.

I headed off, getting drenched in the process. The rain tried hard to damped my spirits, but fortune favours the brave I am told, so I drove to Heslington East to check the lake for more leggy birds. Sadly, I was not favoured today, and four Common Sandpipers and two Snipe were all I had to show for my efforts in the dreadful weather. However, the drawdown does look good, having revealed a good muddy edge to the lake in places as the water has evaporated in the recent heat, and is well worth keeping an eye on as we go through wader season...

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Crexcellent!

...sorry for the terrible pun! You may remember my post from earlier this year about the North Duffield Corncrake.


Well, the great news is that there have been ten singing males in the Lower Derwent Valley NNR this year, and Craig Ralston, the Natural England site manager thinks there may have been eight or so breeding pairs. This is simply brilliant, and testament to what landscape-scale nature conservation can achieve, through a partnership between Natural England, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, local farmers and other organisations. There is now enough meadow in the valley being cut late in the season to enable Corncrakes and other ground-nesting species, such as Curlew, Lapwing and Snipe to thrive. This is a massively good result and has, this year, been helped by the warm dry spring and early summer, meaning no late spring floods causing the loss of nests, which has happened all too frequently in recent years. So, this really is Crex-cellent news, as this is the only natural re-colonisation by Corncrakes in England. Let's hope the partnership keeps strong and gives this enigmatic species a real future here in the Vale of York. Huge congratulations to Craig in particular who has worked so hard for years to make this happen.

Today, we (Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) hosted BBC Look North, who were doing a feature on the impact of the hot weather on wildlife. They were also very interested in the Corncrake success story and so I got to stand in the middle of the patch whanging on about my favourite subject. Not too bad a job sometimes!


My moment of fame :-) On the BBC Look North news.



Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Frankly Mr Shankly!

As is typical, the best birds tend to turn up when I am otherwise disposed, usually on Dad duties. As was the case this last weekend, when we had headed south to Hertfordshire to deposit the newly D-mob happy kids with their inlaws for the first few days of the summer holidays, only for me to get news of a spanking adult summer Franklin's Gull at Scaling Dam near Whitby! Doh! I couldn't be further away. And of course, the gull showed off all afternoon, strutting around in front of the hide- and what a corker it appeared from the photos I saw on Twitter! It flew off north early evening and was not seen again.

So, back in York, childless for a few days, the world was our oyster. With oysters in mind, I decided to do the honourable thing and offered to take my wife out for dinner - a rare treat these days. Arriving home from work, I began checking my phone for some good places to eat. This was when I noticed a message that the Franklin's was back! No way! A change of plan was in the offing!

Vicky arrived back and I asked if she fancied eating in Whitby that evening. Whilst this was a bit of a bonkers suggestion, she thought this was a nice idea as we could take the dog for a walk on the beach afterwards. She knew I had an ulterior motive of course and soon we were legging it east then north - destination: Scaling Dam. Almost as rare as the Franklin's Gull, at least recently, it started to rain! We haven't seen rain round here for weeks and weeks in what is one of the longest, hottest dry spells I can remember. Fortunately, the windscreen wipers still worked and I remembered which button to press to turn them on... Back to the chase, the traffic was reasonably kind, and after just over an hour, we arrived at Scaling Dam, with Vicky only feeling marginally car sick, after my anxious driving.

We had had news of the bird's presence only ten minutes before, so with mounting tension I grabbed my gear and pegged it down to the hide.

 The murky view across the reservoir.

The small gang of gathered birders gave me the great news that the gull was still present, albeit distant and hidden behind a Common Gull. A kind chap called Gordon let me look through his scope so I could work out which particular Common Gull it was sitting behind. Thanks Gordon! Shortly, a black head with large white eye crescents, leant forward - there you are, you little cracker! But it turned out that actually, this bird was quite the show-off, and soon decided to go walk about, strutting among the other gulls, whilst the rain poured down.

Not bad views to be honest, despite the distance and the rain, and a better-looking bird than the last British Franklin's I saw at Thamesmead, Essex, back in April 2000 (Wow, 18 years ago!):

The Thamesmead Franklin's, a second-summer, courtesy of http://www.aabirdpix.com/

Most birders seemed content with their views and as the rain eased, they departed, leaving me and Gordon watching. Suddenly, the bird took flight and flew straight towards us across the water. We begged it to land, and to our delight, it pitched in on to the island just in front of us - what a stonking bird! It gave us superb views, sitting casually on the edge of the water, having the odd drink.


 
 

My first Franklin's Gull in Yorkshire - get on my list you little belter!

After about five minutes, at 7.49pm, the gull got up and flew right past us, and off north over the houses alongside the road. Cracking. There is a big farm up that way, and I wonder if it is feeding in fields near there?

We then headed down to Whitby, had a super curry in the 'Passage to India', before taking Lunar down to Sandsend beach for a dusk walk. And on the way home, 'Frankly, Mr Shankly' by The Smiths came on the radio. You could not make this up!




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, www.wunderbirdworld.com 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:
www.wunderbirdworld.com

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!