Thursday 25 September 2014

A Garrulous Chap

Picked up a 'dead' Jay off Bishy Road this morning by the Palace Grounds. What a beautiful bird, complete with acorn in beak. To my surprise, as soon as I picked it up it twitched a  leg, then a wing and within a few minutes it had come round albeit somewhat dazed. I took a couple of photos of this absolutely stonking bird and then decided to sit it on a branch. After falling off like a drunken village idiot into a hedge, I held it for a little while more during which it decided to do a bit of characteristic squawking, which from close range was ear-splitting. Other commuters gave me some very funny looks. I placed it back on the branch and this time it held it together and managed to remain perched. Work beckoned so I left this bird like a slightly-camp and forlorn sentinel perched in the tree. I hope it survived the ordeal.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Check your stubble

Checked out the big Golden Plover flock in the fields south of Bishopthorpe. Not easy viewing due to the stubble, but c500 birds present. Got a bit excited over a large pale grey bird that looked like a Grey Plover, until it stood up and flapped revealing itself to be some freak Goldie.

Check the bird sleeping right in the middle. The most Grey Golden Plover I have seen.

A Chiffchaff worked the rather scant hedge behind me and a chipping gang of Tree Spugs was a glorious sight at the back of Brunswick. I will be keeping an eye on this flock, especially if we start getting some westerlies, as this is the very spot where my old mate Dunc Poyser found the first acceptable American Goldie for the York area back in late September 2003.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Spurn Unmasked

Plans went wonky when the Spurn Woodchat Shrike was reidentified as Britain's third Masked Shrike! Left in a bit of a panic at 10am and had a shocker of a journey across from York, due to heavy Saturday morning traffic. Nevertheless, arrived at Well Field, parked up and was shortly getting my first distant glimpse of this first for Yorkshire perched on a barbed wire fence at the back of Rose Cottage.

Very pleased to see this bird having never made it north to Scotland for the first. Great to bump into lots of friends and colleagues all with big grins on their faces! Thanks to Paz and Mark from York, jammed  a collosal Convolvulous Hawkmoth courtesy of Father Stoyle and my first Small Mottled Willow moth, both at the Warren. There seemed to be plenty of birds about, so I spent an enjoyable few hours wandering around. Failed to refind an Olive-backed Pipit, though thought I had when I flushed a pipit out of the salt marsh near the Warren. It flew up into a bush and revealed itself as a very smart Tree Pipit. Oh well, nearly.

Bumped into Chris Gomersall from York and enjoyed watching Pied and Red-breasted Flycatchers near the pub with him. Mid-afternoon the shrike had moved a little closer and gave us a better opportunity to check it out. The long black and white tail was really striking and together with large white primary flashes, made the bird really stunning in flight. The bird showed a distinct apricot wash on the flanks which I suppose is a bit of adult colouration coming through. No white rump, and big white scaps were noted. A fine and interesting bird seemingly quite at home pouncing on insects in the grass. A Great Grey Shrike showed quite well on the other side of the road, hunting from the telegraph wires most of the day, and an adult Med Gull flew over. Other migrants about included Spotted Flycatcher (4), Redstart (3), Whinchat (6), Wheatear (8+), Lesser Whitethroat (1), Garden Warbler (2), Siskin (c15), and a few Goldcrests and phylloscs.

Masked Shrike, plus ConvHawk and GGS at the bottom.

Monday 15 September 2014

Old Fall Drift

Up early after late night in Sheffield watching Lee Mack. Couldn't get parked in my usual spot at the top end of Old Fall and shortly bumped into Martin Garner who kindly invited me to park on his drive - thanks Martin!

Headed off down Old Fall. It really is an exciting place to bird in autumn with an easterly blowing and despite the lack of birds (one Redstart, one Wheatear and a Whitethroat) the site always 'feels rare' and you never quite know what might be just around the corner. Today, it was a small, dark short-tailed Locustella which zipped off the clifftop path at the south end of the Old Fall hedge and shot into the long grass on the cliffs. Eek! My mind screamed 'Lancey' and I fixed my eyes on the exact clump of grass where it dived in. I hadn't seen much, but I was sure this was smaller than a Grasshopper Warbler. This could be my big bird.

With ultra focus I crept forward though to be honest, I had little hope of seeing the bird as the grass was very thick and long. A Lancey would just vanish in habitat like this. I got within a metre or so and I was just thinking that the bird must have scurried away, when it shot out again, down a sleep slope to my right and then up into the grass on the cliff side. Bugger! This wasn't going to be very safe or easy to get near to! I hadn't seen much more on the second view other than that the upperparts were the same colour throughout; brown with dark streaks, thus excluding Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Therefore, my choices were limited to Gropper or Lancey. I dumped my scope in the grass and gingerly descended the steep grassy cliff into the thick vegetation at the bottom. Nothing moved. I started to ascend the other side, which was really difficult due to the gradient. Using dead grass and brambles as hand holds wasn't really pleasant, or successful and I twice nearly fell. Reaching the top, I was gutted I hadn't seen the bird again. It must have flown further than I had thought or perhaps scurried away through the grass and out of my line of attack. What to do! Just to my side was the vertical cliffs - I couldn't really go any further that way. So, I opted to search the rough grassland on either side of the depression and the set aside crop. Half an hour later and still no sighting, so I decided this would have to be the one that got away.

A little later, I bumped into Craig and Lee and they were heading that way, so I suggested they have a look for the bird - just in case....

My little streaky distraction left me with not a lot of time. I had a quick check around Bay Brambles, finding a confiding Pied Flycatcher, but no sign of the reported Red-breasted Fly. I then spent a bit of time doing the gardens along the road, which revealed a Garden Warbler and little else. I decided to call it a day and head back - Dad duties beckoned back in York. I had a quick look at Old Fall steps where Phil's Barred Warbler had been seen again. Today, three Barred Warblers and a brief Lesser Whitethroat fed on the elderberries. Clearly a fall of Sylvia borin....Whilst watching these grey dudes, Craig and Lee rocked up. They had in fact seen my Locustella, albeit briefly in flight, and Craig had decided it was a Gropper. Darn it! Oh well, at least that saved a potentially life-threatening twitch on the edge of a very steep cliff, and meant I could leave without the spector of that little streaky dude hanging over me. Though I still wonder...

Saturday 13 September 2014

Bongo Birding!

Spent the night at the north end of Old Fall hedge, Flamborough, in the Bongo, with the beam of the lighthouse eerily sweeping across the fields and lighting up the trees next to the window. Woke to the haunting hoot of the fog horn, cooked up a bacon butty and downed a cuppa then got my gear on and dropped down the Old Fall steps and into birding heaven.

Bumped into Craig Thomas and wandered down the hedge with him. Very little about this early, but Craig regaled with me tales of stumbling upon my dream bird, White's Thrush, last autumn on Fair Isle. Having seen little more than a trio of splendid Roe Deer, a Lesser Whitethroat and a handful of Song Thrushes, we went our separate ways, me to Booted Gulley and Craig to work.

Whitethroat. One of the commonest migrant warblers seen.

The sun came out as my fruitless quest continued, though birding in this stunning place always lifts the heart, even when birdless. Four Golden Plovers blogged about and a few Swallows passed by. As I approached the back of the Gorse Field, a skua appeared heading north over the headland. A smart dark juvenile Arctic. Straight over the Coastguard Cottages and away. Nice. Further along, I scanned the gorse which revealed a veritable feast of Whinchats. At least eight of these dapper buff, white and peach chaps were scouting for insects atop the dark green spikes. As I watched them, a large pale grey warbler hulked across on to the brambles. Surely a Barred Warbler! Yes, there it was lumbering about scoffing blackberries. It seemed to enjoy the sunshine and sat for a while in full view on the edge of a bush. Drat the battery in the radio was flat, so I rang Rich Baines to put the news out. As I watched the bird, another bird hopped up chasing the Barred from its chosen patch of bramble. Another Barred Warbler! Unbelievable scenes in the Gorse Field! I managed a rather unspectacular phonescoped shot of one below - which could arguably be a Desert Warbler or a Wryneck!

Could be anything, but this is the first of the Barred Wobblers.

I didn't see much else for a little while apart from a couple of Whitethroats and a Willow Warbler. I dropped the radio back into Rich's house - thanks mate - and then headed to the northside. No sign of Rich's Wryneck, but a smart Spotted Flycatcher, several Whitethroats, a Bullfinch, Chiffchaff and a few more migrant Song Thrushes. I decided to have one more walk around Old Fall before heading west. Phil Cunningham had just found another Barred Warbler in Chalet Hedge. I stopped to look and it was showing straight away and got a smart look through Phil's scope. Hat-trick! A few more birds in Old Fall, including a showy Spot Fly, several Willow Warblers and a Whinchat. Things had certainly picked up. Sad to leave as always, away I went in the Bongo.

Spotted Flycatcher and Whinchat. Always great to see!

Monday 8 September 2014


Ever wondered why they are called Wrynecks?
Check this out:
Crazy birds!

Sunday 7 September 2014

The Second Spurn Migration Festival 5-7 Sept 2014

....or perhaps, 'Introducing the Wryneck'

Spent 19 hours of the weekend on this beast, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Spurn Unimog.

Together with colleagues Andy Mason and Alex we did five three hour Spurn safaris, which gave us the privilege of showing people a lot of great birds and other wildlife, and the superb experience of some top quality visible migration.

Friday evening kicked off at Westmere Farm with Flamborough's very own Martin Garner (Birding Frontiers) welcoming everyone to Spurn and kicking off the second ever Spurn Mig Fest with a spectacular trademark BOOM!

Clive McKay, VisMig superstar and Trektellen co-ordinator gave an inspirational talk on his favourite subject and gave some great info about why Spurn is so fantastic for witnessing bird migration. It is all about the leading lines! Those of us stopping at Blue Bell then were treated to a delicious dinner courtesy of Andy G and Reenie - thanks guys - before hitting the hay, or rather the very hard Blue Bell floor for a few hours restless kip, full of broken dreams of streams of Mippits and balls of chippering Tree Sparrows.

Saturday 6th
Up and at 'em, with slightly blurred vision and wobbly legs, due to too little shut eye, and off I went on my birding way. Waking up at Spurn- what a treat! Surprisingly few birders about, so I wandered south of the Warren, where I enjoyed my first gang of Whinchats, Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails, playing tag on the saltmarsh. It was going to be a great day! Having picked up a radio I began broadcasting my (very average) finds. I think the Spurn locals were thinking 'this guy is getting far too excited with very common migrants! Try living in York!

Our first Unimog safari loaded up and headed south bang on time at 8am and Alex safely negotiated the washover whilst I held my breath! Migrants were scattered all along the peninsular - how I wish I was outside the vehicle! Down to the end, we piled out on to the Parade Ground and on to our first walk. Small numbers of migrants were evident in the bushes, but the most impressive thing was the large number of Mippits heading over and going straight off the end towards Lincolnshire. This was exactly what we had hoped would be happening and our guests were delighted.

Swallows too were pouring down, sweeping past and over. Some headed straight out like the Mippits, others thought better of it and fed around the end for a while. To our first viewpoint and a pale grey blob jumped out on an elder near the gun emplacement and sat in clear view. Two wingbars, pale tertial edges, and a smudgy pale eyebrow - a Barred Warbler! Only a handful of the group got on the bird before it lumbered back into the depths and vanished. Despite visiting this point another nine times over the weekend, I never saw it again. I later found out that there had been a Barred Warbler in this same spot a couple of days previously. The same bird perhaps, or maybe just what is a good Elderberry bush for one Barred Warbler probably looks good for another. Either way, off to a great start!

Other birds noted: Whitethroat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart, Grey Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Linnet. 

Fab Wryneck Experience #1 - Roadrunner
Half an hour for lunch before the next tour, gave me a chance for a nice chat with old UEA mate and Yorkshire birder Alan Cawthorne and then a swift walk down to Canal Scrape to look for a Wryneck. I only had about a ten minute window and so didn't hold out much hope. I got to the car park entrance and out jumped a small bird on to the road. Bins up. Wryneck! Unbelievable. On the tarmac about ten metres away. What a stonker. Why did I not bring Vicky's camera *muppet*. A car soon came along and flushed the bird, which zipped away and was shortly seen jumping around with a Redstart on top of the tank blocks.

Fantastic Wryneck Experience #2 - The Find
After a quiet midday tour (vismig had dropped off and everything else seemed to be sleeping), we headed out with water lapping the beach on one side of the washover and the top of the saltmarsh on the Humber side- slightly unnerving! Taking advantage of the tide we decided to have an impromptu stop at Chalk Bank, one of my fave Spurn spots - not that I have ever found anything there, but I always feel I just might! Well today, you might guess what would happen! Andy M took most of the group down to the new north hide, and I took half a dozen to the smaller south hide. As we approached, a bird flicked left out of the bush next to the hide and disappeared into the buckthorn. The guy next to me said 'that was a Blackbird I think'. I disagreed and said I thought it looked too small and pale but to be honest I hadn't seen much.

As we waited for a movement, I jokingly said 'well it was probably just  a Wryneck', thinking to myself - Dunnock. As soon as I said these words, a bird flew out of the bush and landed on a fence post right in front of the group. A stonking Wryneck. You couldn't make it up. The guy turned to me and said 'you are a genius!'. Of course ;-)) Not sure that piece of luck will ever repeat itself!Unbelievable scenes and apparently a tick for some of my little group - brilliant!

We then went round to see the rest of the group and enjoyed belting close views of the full suite of Humber waders and imagining which far flung patch of tundra they had all spent their summer holidays.

Back to Westmere Farm just before 7pm, absolutely shattered. All the other volunteers looked how I felt; we had all had a long day, and following some truly cracking chicken curry (compliments to the chef and the friendly serving team!) Spurn Bird Obs' new patron Mike Dilger provided just the tonic for our weary bones with a lively talk about his life and career. Great stuff.

Next, Spurn's birding legend, and Mig Fest founder Andy Roadhouse did the day's birding highlights and then it was down to the Crown and Anchor for beer and social. I was incredibly delighted how welcome all the Spurn folk made us YWT types feel. Lovely to catch up with some old and new friends too and listen to some very entertaining stories from Yorkshire Coast Nature's Rich Baines (hope you now carry a fire extinguisher in your motor Rich!). A great end to a really special day.

Sunday 7th

Up at 6.15am and my now regular 'walk to work' revealed far more migrants than yesterday in the Blue Bell to Warren stretch, with a Merlin, several Whitethroats, four Willow Warblers and a couple of Whinchats. A Lesser Whitethroat showed very briefly. As I approached the Warren, I could see some birders up on Numpties watch point and a line of birders scoping the Humber. Suddenly a strident and ringing "Tsuu-eee" was heard. What the hell was that? I looked up and over the Warren came a wader. Through the bins, I was surprised to be looking at a plover with black from the throat right down on to the belly, and dark underwings - Yikes! The bird called again - I looked over at Numpties - they were being true to their name as it appeared nobody had noticed :-). I looked over at the Humber guys - same story. Oh no! I ran down the road and saw Adam Hutt appearing from the ringing hut - I shouted to see if he had seen the bird and he replied with clearly the same thoughts as me in mind. Martin Stoyle then appeared off the Humber bank - he had seen and heard the bird too.

In the panic, I had taken my eye off the bird as it dropped over on to the mud. Martin too had turned away and we then panicked to refind the bird. Adam approached and picked up two plovers flying in over the mudflats. I strained to see whichever looked blackest! This bird pitched down on to the edge of the saltmarsh at a reasonable distance. I had no scope but soon Martin got us on the bird, but no, this didn't look right, Though partially obscured, this was no American Golden Plover. If anything it could be a Pacific. But surely the small patch of black on the belly of this bird was not what we saw on the flyover job. After a little while of puzzling and with no clear view of the bird's wings or legs, Martin G ( I think) looked from a new angle and put this bird to bed as nothing more than a Goldie. I was convinced we were looking at the wrong bird so walked back up the road to check other Goldie flocks, sadly to no avail. So, possibly the one that got away. Bugger!

We needed to get the Unimog up and running, so I soon departed, hoping that somebody else would sort this out.

I spent most of the rest of the day leading walks on the end of Spurn. There were stacks of birds about, mostly of similar species to yesterday but in much higher numbers. Tree Sparrows had replaced yesterday's Mippit exodus. Chippering balls of spuggies rolled south along the peninsula heading south. Guests were surprised how many of this delightful but declining species were on the move, in fact, most people barely new they dispersed like this. Also noticeable were the larger numbers of Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Yellow Wagtails. A Common Buzzard provided a fine spectacle, walloping through much to the annoyance of the local Herring Gulls. A Grasshopper Warbler jinked across the path and a very pale Lesser Whitethroat was seen several times very briefly and failed to give itself up. The bird was seen by Nathan Pickering later who concurred it looked interesting though he too had only got a quick look. As frustrating, I heard a bird calling in the same place on two separate walks which I did not recognise which left me a bit tantalised....I will report back on that as Andy Roadhouse has made a suggestion as to its identity....

Fantastic Wryneck Experience #3 -Wryneck stops the Traffic!
Our final Unimog trip was a success returning 20 happy clients safely back to base, including the delightful Gyllian, another Spurn legend, who sat up front with us and imparted her botanical wisdom and exceptional wit, which really kept us going on the slog back along the peninsular. I got a lift back to the Blue Bell to collect my gear, by which time my chauffeur (only joking Kev) was keen to head off as he had to get back to York and then catch a train to Newcastle. As I walked round the corner, a birder was videoing something almost at his feet on the drive next to the Blue Bell. Huh?  I slid over as carefully as possible to see if he was filming a Red Admiral or something and was amazed to see the reptilean form of a Wryneck at the base of the house wall literally six feet away! You little belter. I knew there was a load of birders just round the corner, so I snook back round to alert them. Soon we were all having phenomenal views as the bird hopped about searching for ants on the driveway. A number of vehicles pulled up including Adam Stoyle in the YWT landy. This bird had stopped the traffic. A fitting end to the Spurn Wryneck Festival and third of my fantastic and lucky Wryneck experiences this weekend. I arrived back in York a few hours later, feeling dazed and confused, but elated!

Everyone involved in Spurn Migration Festival 2 had done a brilliant job, but special congratulations and thanks to Andy Roadhouse, Rob Adams and the team of brilliant volunteers at Spurn Bird Obs, Sue and Andrew our wonderful hosts at Westmere Farm, Martin Garner, Mike Dilger and Clive McKay, Adam Stoyle and the hard-working YWT crew, Andy and Reenie for putting me up at Blue Bell and of course, those fantastic Wrynecks!! Thanks too to the guests who bought the tickets and shared our enthusiasm and all the sponsors who helped cover our combined costs.
Roll on September 2015.