Sunday 25 February 2024

Challenging Yank

With a bit of time to spare, I headed down to Bubwith where good numbers of birds are present due to the floodwater being a bit shallower than elsewhere in the valley. There were stacks of ducks and waders on North Duffield south ings, but the light wasn't great and a strong cold wind was blowing straight in my face. I switched my attention to the river as the male American Wigeon had been showing here on and off all week. Unfortunately, despite over a hundred Euro Wigeons milling about in the sunshine, the Yank wasn't with them. I decided to trawl through the big flock on the flooded ings, which after several chilly minutes paid dividends, when the gleaming white crown of the American Wigeon caught my attention. It was facing away and asleep, but the creamy-white head was eye-catching. After a bit, it turned side-on, which made things a bit easier and after a challenging few minutes, I managed to get another two birders on to him. 

My first view. A bit of a challenge. Can you see it?

Easier with a yellow ring round it!

Other birds of note included 222 Pochard, between here, Bubwith and Aughton Ings, several Ruff, a couple of Redshank and a few Whooper Swans.



Unexpected Wax

Waiting to meet my sister at Heslington Sports Village car park, to go birding up in Wykeham, I noticed a bird atop a small tree that I thought surely must be a Waxwing. I reached for my bins (always keep them handy), assuming it would just be a Starling, Chaffinch, or similar, but to my delight it was a Waxwing. It flew down towards me into a bush on the edge of the car park and started eyeing up the rosehips, about the only fruit left around these parts. There were plenty of Waxwings around before Christmas, but they've mostly spread south and west so this is the first one I've seen in York this year, so a little unexpected.



Sunday 18 February 2024

One good duck, deserves another...

I went up to the forest early doors and despite the gloomier-than-forecast weather, it did not disappoint. The forest was alive with birdsong; spring is really gathering momentum with the mild weather. Song Thrushes, Chaffinches and Crossbills were belting out their songs, and the local Goshawks were active, chasing off young from last year in some high speed pursuits across the valley. One youngster, a male, flew directly over my head, but against the bright cloud was largely silhoutted. The territory-holding pair were calling continually, and engaging in plenty of display, but apart from some early views, most action over the other side of the valley.


Top two: adult female displaying. Bottom two, one of the harrassed young males, just trying to find his way in this busy forest.

.....

On the way back, I received a message that the Chapman family (Rob, Jane and Tom) had found a drake American Wigeon at Bubwith Ings. Great! Neil Cooper had seen one at Melbourne in mid-January; it was then seen again a day or two later on Bubwith Ings, but hadn't been seen since. The valley has been deeply flooded making birding tricky, so I guess it could have been hanging out unnoticed for a month. Alternatively, it might have had a trip to the Humber with some of the Wigeon, looking for better feeding, and had now returned. Either way, it made for a fine sight, chilling on the grassy edge of the flood with plenty of commoner cousins, quite unaware of the mini-twitch it had created! The gathered locals informed me that Tim Jones had just seen an adult Kittiwake feeding with the small gulls over the wet fields behind the flood - strange! I scanned through the flock which had just flushed, and picked up the Kitt, which flew along over the field before disappearing behind the trees. A smart, unexpected bonus - nice one Tim! I enjoyed a few more minutes of the American Wigeon, my first in the York area for five years.





Friday 16 February 2024

Long wait for a Long-tail

 Long-tailed Ducks are mega-rare in the York area, despite being a regular, but scarce passage migrant and winter visitor along the Yorkshire coast. It has been a good winter for inland records in England, with a few in the north, so I had had my fingers crossed one might show up and break my 'duck'. On Tuesday, I had a meeting over at Grassington with some of the senior team at YWT and it was with shock and a little dismay that as I arrived on site, I saw a bunch of excited messages from fellow York birders congratulating Stuart Rapson, who had just found a Long-tail at Castle Howard! I was stuck in the Dales for most of the day, so it seemed unlikely I was going to get there in time to see it. Fortunately, the meeting finished ahead of schedule and the trip back to York was smooth, so after catching up on a bit of work admin, I decided to head over before the dusk slammed shut. There had been no news since late morning, so it was with trepidation that I made my way down the path by the lake. I scanned the water hard, checking the flocks of diving ducks carefully. Alas, there was no sign. When Long-tailed Ducks turn up inland they either disappear within a few hours or stay for several weeks. It appeared that this bird, which seemed to have been the individual that had spent the last few weeks at Pugneys Country Park in West Yorkshire, was heading coast-wards and it looked like it had maybe moved on during the afternoon. I reached the end of the lake path and with no more water to check, I turned to head back, with a sinking feel of an impending dip beginning to envelope me. Would it be another 20 years before I got a shot at another York Long-tail? I hadn't even seen the Smew which had been found this morning. Gutted! I carried on scanning as I wandered back and to my delight, I suddenly had my bins on the Long-tail!

She immeditely dived, opening her wings as she went under. She spent a good 45 seconds underwater and on surfacing, was only up for about five seconds before disappearing again. No wonder I'd walked right past her! I decided to try and get closer, as I was looking into the light. It took me about ten minutes to refind her, during which time I began to think I was losing the plot! Fortunately, she surfaced again in my field of view and this time I managed to track her. A smart bird, and really dinky compared with the local Tufties and Goldeneye. The bird seemed ot have a pinkish wash near the bill tip, making me thing the bird might be a young male, but later discussion confirmed it is a first-winter female, and the pinkish colour is actually just pale grey. This Long-tailed Duck is my 228th species in the York recording area and my first new addition in 2024. What will be next?


 

...

Today I had the day off and headed back up to CHL to see if the Long-tail was still there. Again she took a bit of finding and this time she was right down the far end in the company of a few Goldeneye. She again was diving repeatedly and once took flight and did a bit of a fly-round, soon returning to the same spot. 

After watching her for half an hour, I decided to head off to look for other things. Two Barnacle Geese were loafing on the lake and a Cetti's Warbler was singing in the reedbed near the road. 





Feisty Finches

 It is early spring and the volume of birdsong has gone up a few notches. Song Thrushes started belting out their varied songs at the beginning of the month, along with Chaffinches, Skylarks and Dunnocks. In the last few days, mild weather seems to have got the local Blackbirds going, and they are delivering their beautiful, summery notes to the growing chorus, hinting at warmer days to come. 

In the garden, the first Frog appeared last night (15th Feb) but no spawn yet. Last year, we had spawn on the 19th, so we will see if that record is broken. Pink-footed Geese have been on the move north, with several skeins heading over the village and elsewhere. It has been a good winter for Bramblings, and I have had several in the garden, with a female appearing a few times recently. Yesterday morning, she appeared along with five Siskins, who really bossed the feeders, angrily defending their spot at breakfast from bigger Greenfinches and Goldfinches. Very feisty!



Saturday 10 February 2024

Rosedale Raptor Fest

With the Vale of York fog-bound, I took a gamble to head for the hills, or the Moors to be precise. The North York Moors are only an hour north of York and much is heavily-degraded driven grouse moors, all burnt to within a few inches of their life, to promote the growth of young heather, for the Red Grouse to eat. Raptor persecution is rife along with wholesale industrial slaughter of every other potential predator of grouse chicks. This is all to enable moor owners to offer large 'bags' of grouse, to tempt rich punters to part with lots of cash for a days blasting birds out of the sky. All very depressing.

As I headed up through Hutton-le-Hole, the cloud was still very low and I began to feel I had been a little too optimistic! However, to my relief, as I broke the ridge and descended Rosedale Chimney, I could see clear skies to the north of the village. Fingers crossed!

Mark Fewster, Nick Addey and Chris Bell were all in position when I arrived on the moor; they hadn't seen any Rough-legged Buzzards but had had a mouth-watering haul of raptors, which boded well. A pair of Ravens cronked past within minutes; not a common bird on the NYM, so this was a good start. Golden Plovers were bombing about and there were plenty of Red Grouse strutting their stuff. Shortly, Mark headed off, followed a little later by Nick and Chris though not before a Peregrine cruised south along the ridge in front of us. Shortly, a Hen Harrier - a ringtail- appeared over the ridge and quartered it's way north across the moor and into the distance, flushing coveys of grouse and fast-flying Goldies. 

After a while I noticed a raptor sitting on a stone post on the far ridge. To my surprise, zooming up it seemed to be a young Goshawk! Even at long range, the upright stance, long tail and comparatively small head on a long body was distinctive. But what was it doing out here? Cropton Forest was only a mile or so away, so perhaps they do come up here, hunting plovers and other small birds. 

Another birder arrived and I pointed the bird out; he wasn't convinced, but it was a long way off. I kept my eye on it, feeling that if it flew, I could nail it. To my surprise, another raptor came gliding over the ridge not far from the Gos and down the slope towards us. It was clearly a buzzard sp. and seemed pale-headed. I suggested the other birder get on the bird; it then swooped on to a large boulder, revealing a big solid black belly patch contrasting beautifully with a straw-coloured breast and head. A Rough-leg! Just then the other bird took flight and headed off low across the moor, confirming itself as a Gos.

The Rough-leg was pretty distant and after 20 minutes of watching it, the other birder told me there was a track close-by which would allow us to get 500m closer. I headed down there, followed by the other guy. It did seem a lot closer, but the bird was still pretty distant, allowing us to watch it without disturbance. 

 

As I was watching it, Nick rang to say they had found another Rough-leg and could also see 'our' bird in the distance. Unfortunately, their bird was out of sight for me, but our bird was good enough. After my temporary companion departed, another birder turned up and we spent the next couple of hours following the Rough-leg as it boulder-hopped up the valley. The moor was very still, with little breeze, which perhaps was causing the bird to hunt in this manner. There was certainly no wind to aid hovering, which is often employed by Rough-legs. Much of this area of Rosedale Moor is heavily managed for grouse, but the steep slopes and narrow valley of Northdale Rigg has a mix of rough grass, scrub and woodland, along with the heather moorland above, and it is perhaps this mix that is attracting the raptors, presumably hunting voles, birds and rabbits. 

The Rough-leg never came close until right at the death, when having reached the top of the valley, it decided to fly back down towards Rosedale, giving great views as it passed along the rigg in front of us. Nearby, a Merlin was perched up on a rock and we saw a Peregrine again, the female Hen Harrier and two or three Common Buzzards. Havings seen Sparrowhawk and Kestrel on my way up, this had become an  unexpected eight raptor day! With Marsh Harrier and Red Kite easy to see back near York, I was tempted to head down the LDV to complete the set, but in the end decided to quit while I was ahead and go back for a celebratory cuppa. As I headed back down towards Rosedale village, a Barn Owl was perched on a gate next to the road. Perfect! To see this many raptors on a small part of the North York Moors demonstrates what the area could support if only some of the gamekeepers would be more tolerant of birds of prey (and not break the law) and would allow a more natural mosaic of upland habitats to develop.

A tiny Merlin - honest!




Distant Rough-leg footage.







Penetrating the Murk

My Yorkshire Coast Nature LDV tour was postponed due to bad weather and deep flooding, but it turned out to be not as bad as forecast, so mid-morning I went out for a wander. My second Barn Owl of the day, following one on the dawn dog walk in Bishopthorpe, showed well hunting the rough grass at East Cottingwith. The bad weather over the last few days has probably made hunting arduous for these owls, which is why they are out and about this late. 

Not much was doing at Wheldrake from the East Cottingwith side, due to deep flooding, but it was nice to see D3 the regularly-wintering female Marsh Harrier, here for another vacation from East Anglia.

148 Pochards at Aughton was good, but there were no birds with paler mantles among them (Canvasbacks). Five more were on Bubwith Ings but unfortunately I couldn't pull in at the bridge due to a line of traffic, so I missed the 170+ Blackwits that Tim reported later. North Duff was quiet, due to deep water, so I pressed on to Thorganby. A Little Owl was calling on arrival but I failed so spot it. Counting the distant Whoopers on the other side of the river, I suddenly noticed there were two smaller swans with them. They had their heads underwater (feeding!) for what seemed like ages and seemed to always pull their heads up when they were facing away. After a few minutes of convincing myself they were Bewick's Swans, they finally turned side-on and I got a good view of one of the beaks, clinching the ID. I thought I was not going to see any Bewick's in the LDV this winter, so this was a nice finale to my loop of the valley. The drizzle had started again and the visibility was reducing, so I decided to call it a day.

Bewick's in the murk
 

Sunday 4 February 2024

Doing the roost

I've been doing the Wheldrake Ings roost as much as possible recently. No white-wingers (Glaucous and Iceland) is a sign of the times, but there have been regular Caspian Gulls, with at least three different first-winters recorded. Mediterranean Gulls have been among the hordes of Common and Black-headeds too, with adult, first and second winters all seen recently. A couple of Lesser Black-backs have been around too, with up to 69 Great Black-backs and 300+ Herrings some nights. 

Adult Mediterranean Gull, 27th Jan

First-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull, 27th Jan

First-winter Caspian Gull, 2nd Feb

Two first-winter Caspian Gulls, 4th Feb

Second-winter Mediterranean Gull, 4th Feb


More Goshawks

With sunshine, mild conditions and a steady breeze, I headed to the forest to see if the Goshawks were getting frisky. Sure enough they were, with lot of display seen and incessant calling. I checked out three sites, with birds seen at each, a total of about 12 individuals. The adult females were doing a lot of stiff-winged flapping, with high amplitude wingbeats and puffed out undertail coverts. Lots of Crossbills and Siskins around too.


 
Adult male (top) and female (other four), with an immature female with the adult in the second photo.


Local Owls

After dipping this Little Owl on the birdrace early in January, it was good to catch up with it, in it's favourite tree at Thorganby a few days later. The regular Tawny Owl was sunning itself on the Barn Owl box at Wheldrake Ings the next day. Here is a pic of a typical Wheldrake scene this winter; wading through the floods to get to Tower Hide.




Monday 22 January 2024

January Daze

It was cold last week, with hard frosts and night-time temperatures plummeting to minus six. Birds flocked to the garden; there have been one or two Lesser Redpolls on the feeders again, but best of all, two handsome male Bramblings appeared on Friday, one of which fed from a feeder for a while. They got flushed by something and sadly didn't return. 

I led a tour round the LDV on Saturday, for Yorkshire Coast Nature. It was tricky as most of the floodwater was frozen and consequently most of the ings were devoid of birds. The upside was that all the ducks and waders were concentrated along the ice-free river, with hordes of Wigeon and Teal attracting the attention of Marsh Harriers and a Peregrine, which caused much anxiety among the ducks. 

Despite the cold, a few hundred Dunlin were flying around, settling on the field near Bubwith Bridge along with a white-headed Ruff, to wait out the cold. Round at Wheldrake, we were able to get down to the windpump for the first time in weeks. By mid-afternoon, temperatures had finally begun to rise and the ice was beginning to melt. On the refuge, we located a pair of Smew, presumably the same birds that had been at Thorganby recently until the ice froze them out. A female Scaup was with the Tufted Duck flock and another Peregrine was hunting along the canal, flushing seven Black-tailed Godwits (there were two others standing on the ice with the ducks) and a few Curlews. I bade farewell to my group and then squelched back to Tower Hide to do the roost with Adam and Duncan. Duncan paid more interest than the rest of us in a small egret that flew past. I was too busy looking at the arriving gulls but when Duncan said for the second time that it looked interesting, I decided to have a look. The bird dropped into a distant field right next to a cow, and when it started pacing forward picking things up out of the grass, we realised Duncan was right; it was a Cattle Egret! 

A little later, my scope settled on a smart first-winter Caspian Gull among the hordes of Herring Gulls. The light was failing so my pics weren't great, but it was a good-looking bird nevertheless and a nice way to end a good, but challenging day in the valley.

Sunday dawned mild and sunny. I had things to do but managed to get out birding early afternoon, so I headed down to Wheldrake again. The thaw had really worked its magic and the sodden ings were now covered in birds. I spent ages looking through the hordes of ducks for something rare, but failed. However, the female Scaup was still present, and had been joined by a handsome drake. 

The gulls began to arrive mid-afternoon, along with a strengthening wind, the first breath of Storm Isha. A monstrous first-winter Great Black-backed Gull came in early; we recognised 'The Beast' from yesterday's roost. The gulls were spread out in a vast arc, with hundreds feeding on the exposed ings, presumably finding lots of worms and other invertebrates to eat. Yesterday's Caspian Gull arrived at 4pm and showed well in front of the hide and we picked out single first-winter and adult Mediterranean Gulls and an adult Lesser Black-backed. We estimated about 5000 Common Gulls, 12000 Black-headed Gulls, 400+ Herring Gulls and ten Great Black-backs. Four Goosanders arrived to roost too.