Monday 29 February 2016

Leap Day! 29th February 2016

Not often you get a Leap Day, well, every four years I suppose. With a new dog, Lunar, I decided to take a day off to settle her in, and what better way than to go birding! Checked out the east side of the LDV for a couple of hours, which was a good move, with a Cetti's Warbler calling in the reeds north of East Cottingwith by the Pocklington Canal, the redhead Smew from here on the Wheldrake Ings refuge, and a Jack Snipe flushed from under my feet from the edge of the Canal half way to Storwood. Down at Ellerton I just missed the Ruddy Shelduck which had been flushed by a farmer along with everything else. Down at Aughton, the four Russian White-fronted Geese (two adults and two juveniles now sporting decent white faces) were showing well, and five Scaup (drake plus two adult females and two immature females) were among hordes of Pochards.

 Smew and White-fronts.

Headed down to Rufforth Airfield mid afternoon which was also great, with three first winter Glaucous Gulls ranging from standard brown to virtually white, and a pale first winter Iceland Gull, with Glauc-alike bill pattern. Lots of Lesser Black-backs in the flock now with 40 present in one sweep of the flock. No Caspians today.

To give you an idea of what looking through gull flocks is like: Can you see the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls in this pic?
 Glaucous Gull #1 Fairly pale first winter.

Faded first winter Iceland Gull
Glaucous Gull #2 A very faded first winter.

 Adult Lesser Black-back next to a first winter Great Black-back.

Glaucous Gull #3 standard first winter.

Leap Day's Eve 28 February.
Popped out to Wheldrake Ings late afternoon:
Whooper Swan, 21 adults and 4 juveniles dropped in from the south at c4pm
Black-tailed Godwits, 18 (first of the year)
Iceland Gull, 1 adult in the roost. This bird may have been a fourth winter as seemed to have a little dark mark on the bill, but it could have been muck!
Glaucous Gull, 1 first winter in the roost.
Barn Owl, 1.

Bottom photo: Iceland Gull ad/4w

Other odds and ends
Have spent a fair bit of time down at Rufforth usually in a quick lunchtime dash. This has revealed a few Glaucous Gulls, an adult and first winter Iceland Gulls. Caspian Gull numbers seem to have dropped right off recently. Went to Filey on the 14th to see the immature drake Surf Scoter which showed well off Carr Naze, but I failed to get a good shot with my phone. Had a few gulls the same day in the roost at Wheldrake Ings: second winter Caspian and first winter Glaucous.

 Surf Scoter off Filey Brigg

 2w Caspian Gull in failing light at Wheldrake Ings, and first winter Glaucous Gull below.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Big Ten

Nailed the Big Ten Gulls (I'm making this up as I go along) today in the York area (Larus argentatus, argenteus, michahellis, cachinnans, marinus, graellsii, hyperboreus, glaucoides, ridibundus, canus). Tried very hard for a Med Gull or a Kittiwake in the roost at Wheldrake Ings, but sadly I couldn't find one.
Earlier, I spent a few hours at Rufforth with the highlights being (what I am pretty sure is) a first winter Yellow-legged Gull, two first winter and one second winter Caspian Gulls and two first winter Glaucous Gulls. Sadly, Iceland Gull eluded me, so I headed southeast to do the roost at Wheldrake, and a first winter Iceland Gull was one of the first birds I saw! Not much else of note, apart from a first winter Caspian Gull, female Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl, c1500 Lapwings.

 1w Casp
 Glauc #1

YL Gull
Glauc #2

Friday 12 February 2016

This is the one!

I took a day off today as I knew we would have had a late night last night, as our band, Our Enemies, was in the studio recording an EP. Dropped off the kids and then decided to head north to check out the River Rye near Nunnington, a stretch of river that used to be one of the only places Dippers bred in the York Recording Area. Admittedly, none had been reported for 20 years, but I decided that perhaps nobody had looked recently, so it was worth a try! As I would be passing Castle Howard, it seemed rude not to have a look, to see if a Smew or something had come in with the cold snap on the continent. A big pile of geese were in the fields by the lake, so I stopped and had a look. Nothing but Canadas and Greylags, but a pair of singing Nuthatches chasing round the roadside Limes gave the cold air a springlike feel.

Castle Howard was rammed with birds. Surely there had to be something good here somewhere! The creamy glow of a drake Goosander shone across the water; his drab partner followed in his wake. Grey Herons sat on their newly refurbished nests. Hundreds of Wigeon whistled and dozens of Teal peeped, and among them at least forty Goldeneye in a range of plumages, including some cracking drakes busy tossing their heads back to impress the rather unimpressed females.

Among the willow roots I picked out the rather surreal form of a male Mandarin, sailing along. Nearby four more - two drakes, a female and a first winter male, sat on a log. Later on, two males and a female were on the grassy bank, so eight in total, a good count.

Several Pochard looked handsome in the early morning light and I scoured the Tufties looking for a Scaup or something rarer. A Wigeon grabbed my attention, with a very pale crown stripe and some yellow on the lores  -wierd! Maybe a bit of American in there some where. I started thinking about American Wigeons and how they are still ssuprisingly rare in the York area despite the collossal herds of Wigeon that winter in the area. It seems strange that American Wigeons turn up annually somewhere in Yorkshire but often on gravel pits and reservoirs, which doesn't seem to be ideal compared with the hectares of prime Wigeon feeding in the Lower Derwent Valley!

I walked down to the end of the lake to scan through the hordes of ducks down there. Looking through the Wigeon, I glimpsed a very white-looking crown stripe. Surely not?! The tight flock of feeding Wigeon concealed something good, I was sure of it!

 The Wigeon parted and out swam a cracking drake American Wigeon!

Was I imagining this? No, it seemed I wasn't! I looked at the photos hastily taken on my phone to check I wasn't losing my marbles- no, it was an American! I checked the crown stripe from all angles, noted the fine black line around the bill base, the peppery grey head with broad green stripe through the eye, fully pink body and black and white rear end. OK, I hadn't seen the white axillaries, but this looked perfect for a pure Yank Wigeon, only my second in the York area and the first for Castle Howard.

On the way back, I was treated to a beautiful full-on courtship display from a pair of Great Crested Grebes. I sat down and watched them. Simply stunning, they did the weed dance and everything, the best bit being where they dramatically threw the weed away like a pair of passionate tango dancers.

Dipping Dippers
Onwards to West Ness. I flushed a Kingfisher by West Ness bridge and this turned out to be the best bird. I walked the couple of miles up the River Rye past Nunnington Hall to the boundary of the York Recording Area, but sadly no Dippers were in evidence. Nunnington bridge looked reasonable as a nest site (it certainly used to be) and I suspect when the water drops, it would look pretty Dipper-friendly. But not today. I headed back, noting more noisy Nuthatches and c500 Fieldfares and c100 Redwings feeding in sheep fields. Along with some very curious sheep, who behaved like they had never seen a birder before.

Into the Valley
I headed south to see what the south end of the LDV had to offer. I soon located the drake Scaup from the other day, but couldn't see the others. I picked up three of the four redhead Smew and pointed them out to some other birders who had been looking for them. Round to the Geoff Smith Hide and my first spring Oystercatcher was feeding along the edge of the flooded ings.

Next stop Thorganby: Ruff, 35, Dunlin, 30, Bar-headed Goose, 2 (!), Whooper Swan c100 in the distance and a Little Owl calling.

A quick look from Wheldrake bridge, for I was running out of time, revealed a meadow full of Lapwings, plus 132 Golden Plovers and 10 Dunlin.

Not a bad start to my birding weekender. Shame my car looks a bit worse for wear!

Thursday 11 February 2016

Glauc for lunch

Another lunchtime gull session, revealed this big lump of a first winter Glaucous Gull in the field next to the tip at Rufforth. Sadly in our short window of time, we couldn't find anything else apart from four adult Lesser Black-backs which are clearly now starting to pass through on their northbound migration.

Phonescoped pics.

Sunday 7 February 2016

Happy Valley

Spring-like feel first thing with tits, skylarks song thrushes, chaffinches and reed buntings singing.

Wheldrake Ings 7.30am to 9.30am
Great Skua, 1
Marsh Harrier, 1 f
Curlew, 6
Dunlin, 8
Lapwing c1000
Goldeneye, 10
Willow Tit - 1 m singing in car park

Distant Bonxie landing on the Ings, and a pair of Curlew.

Bubwith Ings 10.30am
Scaup, 6  (1 adult male, 1 imm male, 2 imm females, 2 adult females)
Pochard 207
Tufted Duck 20

Aughton Ings  -quiet (7 extra Pochard!)
Ellerton Ings 11.30am
Whooper Swan c80
White-fronted Goose 2 ad, 2 imm (see pic below)
Shelduck, 58

East Cottingwith 12.30pm
Great Skua - soaring over Wheldrake!
Red Kite, 1 (also over Wheldrake)
Goldeneye, 2

Friday 5 February 2016

The Wheldrake Ings Bonxie

The last thing I expected on a dreary, calm early February day was news of a Great Skua at Wheldrake Ings! This is a mega record for the York area, with only four previous records published in YOC reports:

  • 2007 Malton, 11th November. Picked up alive and released at Bempton.
  • 2007 Ellerton Ings, 13th September.
  • 1983 York University, 14th November. Flew east.
  • 1981 Wheldrake Ings, 26th April. Appeared in snow and a force 8 north-east wind
 I also began to worry about the fact that at this time of year, the identity should be carefully scrutinised (if possible) to eliminate the mega rare South Polar Skua, and this could be an outside possibility. Either way, this was a bird I really wanted to see, so after a nail-biting few hours, I managed to escape work early and shot down there as quickly as a I could. 

Fortunately, Craig Ralston had kept the Bonxie under observation, so within seconds I was watching the distant, but menacing dark form of a large skua sitting on the water near the 'Cormorant Trees' in front of Tower Hide. Fantastic! I legged it along the muddy riverside path to Tower Hide, just in time to see the skua fly off south - oh no! 

 To my delight, the gathering gull roost attracted the bird back in, scaring every gull on the ings in the process, all of which headed off down the valley. The skua landed on the water again in front of the hide. By now it was 4.40 and the light was starting to fail, particularly as it was fairly dreary. Tim Jones advised on the features I should look for to help with the identification but the poor light and distance made this very difficult. 

The Bonxie from Tower Hide.

The Bonxie got up and flew over to Storwood Ings, where it flushed a huge flock of Black-headed Gulls all of which panicked at this big dark menace heading straight for them. The bird landed on the flood in the distance and disappeared behind the bushes. A few minutes later, the skua got up again and flew straight towards me landing again in front of the hide. By now it was little more than a silhouette even though it was only c500m away. I wouldn't be adding much to the ID debate! I headed back to the bridge at dusk and met Gary Taylor who was watching the bird in the gathering gloom from there. 

Later, I sent the excellent photos taken by the finder of the bird Trevor Walton to my old friend Dick Newell, large skua expert to see what he thought of the bird's identity. Here are Trevor's photos - I hope he doesn't mind me sharing them:

Photos of the Wheldrake Great Skua by Trevor Walton

"First impressions of your skua are Bonxie, and on closer inspection I think I can justify that.
It looks like the primary moult score is something north of 45, which would fit a Bonxie in its 3CY or older, or it would fit a 1st cycle (2CY) South Polar. The dark hood on the flying bird, the capped appearance of the perched bird, the nature of the streaking on the scapulars, the generally rufous appearance, the non compact structure (subjective feature when you have your eye in!) all point to Bonxie.
The lack of streaking on the wing coverts means it is probably a 3CY Bonxie at the end of its second moult cycle. An older bird would be streaked here.
It is well worth looking critically at any skua like this, it is now too long since those 3 South Polars turned up over 10 years ago."

So, Yorkshire twitchers could probably sleep easy, it was 'only' a Great Skua, but still a great record for the York area and one I certainly didn't expect to add to my York list in February! The bird moved to Swantail Ings and was present until dusk, so hopefully would be there in the morning.
Thanks to Trevor for finding the bird and reporting it to Craig and for Craig getting the news out so quickly and then helping me see the bird later.

Post script
The Bonxie did indeed roost and was still present on 5th February.


Wednesday 3 February 2016

Lunch at the Airfield

Quick look at Rufforth airfield over lunch revealed an adult Lesser Black-back, two first winter Glaucous Gulls and a first winter Caspian Gull. Very pleasant in the late winter sunshine too.

The second Glauc proved to be a lot more showy than the first, which sat down among the flock and vanished about a minute after we had found it!

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Nacreous Clouds

Never heard of a Nacreous Cloud until yesterday, and then woke up and the sky looked like a psychedelic mother of pearl sensation!