Monday 8 May 2023

Stilt Panic

Heading out to walk Lunar on Saturday morning (6th May), I lazily checked my phone. The first message, from Jack Ashton-Booth on a birding Whatsapp group simply said 'Amazing'. I scrolled up and saw a pasted Birdguides message: 'Black-winged Stilt at Heslington East'.  Panic!

Black-winged Stilts are turning up more frequently, and even bred in Yorkshire last year, but this would be only the third record for the York area and a species I had really hoped to see this spring, due to the numbers turning up in the UK. I u-turned, shouted up the stairs to Vicky that I had changed my plans, grabbed my optics and dived into the car, leaving a rather confused dog in the hall!

A short, rather tense drive later, and I parked up by Heslington Church, executing a reverse park into a small space in one go, which surprised myself, given the stress levels! This was my last calm moment as I leapt from the car, picked up my gear and ran. Now, I have seen plenty of Black-winged Stilts in the UK before, but to see them within a few miles of home would be very special, so I wasn't taking any chances that they would up and leave at any moment. Rounding the corner to the hide, I could see Dean Brookes, Tim Jones and Chris Gomersall all grinning; this looked positive! And sure enough, within moments, the elegant pied forms of not one, but four (!) Stilts were seen, casually striding about in the lagoon. Awesome!


It seemed this could be a family party, with an adult pair, and pair of first-summers, sporting browner, worn upperparts and white trailing-edges to their wings. The presumed adult male was very aggressive towards the white-headed presumed-female. He also mated with one of the youngsters. It wasn't until later that I noticed he too had a white trailing edge to his wings, so was also a first-summer. The white-headed female was likely to be a male too, and the only adult present, which was why he was being bullied by the younger male. Whilst males tend to have more black on the head, this is apparently not always the case. Every day is a school day!


After a while, something spooked the group, and they took off together, circled round, then headed high up into the overcast sky, bubble-gum pink legs trailing behind. They seemed to be looking for another wetland to aim for, and as they turned to the southeast, I assumed they had spotted the Lower Derwent a few miles away. As they disappeared, I put the news out that they had departed, only to hear the shout of 'they're coming back!' from another birder. They came in again, heading north, and dropped on to the Top Lagoon, or Wood Sand Pool as I call it. We all scurried round there, and got great views of the group, standing on the submerged rocks in the middle of the water. The viewing was a bit hampered by the reeds, but it was great to get some more views. As more birders arrived, I decided to go and finish the dog walk, that I had abandoned an hour earlier.

Apparently, a little later the Stilts moved back to their original spot where they hung out until at least mid-afternoon. The last report was just before 4pm. The following day, they were refound in the Aire Valley, at St Aidan's. With all that mating going on, I hope they find a suitable breeding site soon. 

After what was a sensational start to the Bank Holiday weekend, the news of two Bee-eaters near Holme-on-Spalding Moor was just mind-blowing. Sadly, they were not pinned down and my second twitch of the day didn't materialise. Following an hour watching the King's coronation, I spent the afternoon driving around the southeast of the York area, scouting for pea fields in order to try and find a Dotterel, whilst keeping one eye on the sky for Bee-eaters. I found one good pea field, which was sadly lacking in Dotterels. A couple of Little Ringed Plovers in a flooded turf field was nice, as was a Hobby sitting out a thundery downpour at North Duffield. 

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