Saturday 30 December 2017

Mediterranean Christmas

My last visit to Wheldrake Ings for 2017 was a success, with a hunting Peregrine the highlight. Good to bump into Duncan on the way too; he has seen 146 species here this year - brilliant! Surely 150 is possible?! The Willow clearance done by the YOC volunteers and Natural England has made viewing much better - nice work folks! I had a good look through the huge numbers of Wigeon and Teal but couldn't find anything American. Four Goldeneye were on the deep water.

As the gloom gathered, hordes of gulls came in to roost, many of which decided to settle on the ice to the south of Tower Hide. I spent a while trying to read colour ring codes on Herring Gulls, all of which were presumably birds rung at Harewood Whin tip at Rufforth by Craig and his crew. Among them, I also found an adult Common Gull with a white ring on. I am not sure if this is a locally-rung bird or not. Towards dusk, my grilling of the smaller gulls revealed a fine first-winter Mediterranean Gull, with heavy black bill and slick bandit mask. Also, a white Black-headed Gull was quite smart, similar to birds I have seen at Grafham Water in the past. A good end to a fine York birding year.

 A very white Black-headed Gull.

 Not easy to find and still pretty rare in the York area, this is my first York Med Gull this year.

First-winter Med Gull. A bit easier when it turns it's head!


Spent a couple of days in North Norfolk to wind down from Christmas chaos. Our main day was beautiful, with azure skies setting off whispering reeds, distant windmills and large flocks of Pinkfeet and Brents. We did a long walk east from Burnham Deepdale to Holkham Gap, enjoying the solitude, and the sight of Marsh Harriers hunting the ditches. A Red Kite hung over Burnham Overy Dunes and a Merlin zipped past. Later, we headed to Titchwell, where a huge wreck of marine life had attracted hordes of waders along with probably ten thousand gulls- including at least three adult Mediterraneans, and offshore a smorgasboard of seaduck, including several handsome Long-tailed Ducks, Goldeneye, Eider, Common Scoter and a few Red-throated Divers. The main species involved in the wreck were Razor Clams, many of which were still alive. Among these were lots of Common Starfish and a smattering of Sunstars and Brittlestars, along with Dog Whelks and various other molluscs. Whatever stormy sea or tide had scoured this lot out of the sea had done so with devastating effect, although the local birdlife was quick to home in on the banquet.

Bunrham Overy Dunes and freshmarsh

 Razor wreck, complete with Common Starfish and Sunstar among the thousands of Razor Clams.

 Titchwell, late afternoon

Sunday 3 December 2017

"By Jove! It's a Glossy Ibis!"

News came through from Adam Firth that he had found a drake American Wigeon on Bank Island yesterday afternoon. I was up to my knees in snow on the North York Moors, sledging with the kids. Hopefully it would be there tomorrow morning...

Dawn broke, and with England's attack wavering against a determined Aussie test batting side, I decided it wasn't worth staying in to listen to and headed out to the LDV. A little while later I arrived to find LDV stalwart Duncan Bye on the platform along with Adam, trying to refind yesterday's Yank. There was plenty of water and plenty of Wigeon, but the murky half light, with mist hanging over the floods was not helping. After a bit, I exclaimed I was going to head round to Wheldrake to see if the site was beginning to flood. Dunc and Adam came along and we soon discovered that it certainly was flooding and was covered in birds. The car park was already inundated, so I parked up the lane and we waded through the floods, with the water only an inch or so below welly top level.

We headed round the riverside path to Tower Hide, which was a little sketchy as the Derwent was spilling over heavily on to the meadows.

The light still wasn't great, due to the sun's position, but as time went on, things improved. A quartet of Roe Deer were mooching about at the back, and two Marsh Harriers stirred things up. Two Stonechats fed along the banktop and thousands of Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Shoveler, Mallard and Gadwall were spread across the flooding ings. A thousand Lapwings rested along the edge of the water and were soon joined by 300+ Golden Plover and five Ruff. Classic Wheldrake scenes.

Duncan suddenly muttered something about a Glossy Ibis, and then shouted "By jove! It is a Glossy Ibis!" or the equivalent Rotherham expletives to that effect! We scanned right and to our utter amazement there, flapping in over the 'Cormorant trees' was a Glossy Ibis! No way! A York first!  The bird flew along the back of the flood flushing all the Teal and Lapwings. It looped round towards us, giving good views through the scope. It then went back over Swantail Ings and off towards the refuge. I managed a bit of video through the scope, but the less said about that the better. And within a minute it was all over. We were elated, high fives and big grins all round - well done Duncan!

To our delight, five minutes later, Adam picked it up returning. It flew past much closer and we all shouted at it to land, and it did, on the flooded main meadow to the north of the Tower Hide.

We got the news out again as it would be viewable now from the Bailey Bridge. It fed here along the edge of the flood for the next 20 minutes. Despite looking fairly sizeable in flight, the bird was actually quite small, being similar in size to the Jackdaw and Lapwings nearby.


A Peregrine flew past flushing all the waders but the ibis was not bothered. After a bit, we decided the rapidly rising water levels were in danger of cutting us off, so we headed back. We paused to look at the ibis again, but shortly afterwards the whole site was disturbed by three low-flying planes and in the ensuing melee, we lost the ibis.

We headed back along the flooding path, just making it back out of the car park, with millimetres to spare!

A very happy Mr Bye, with Adam Firth in the background. Wading out of the car park!

We headed back up to Bank Island where the light was a bit better. After a little while, Adam performed an incredible feat of observation and picked  up the sleeping American Wigeon out on the flood. This really as impressive as it wasn't obvious in the dull light. A smart bird nevertheless!

Yank Wigeon, under the red dot. Honest!

This was proving to be an awesome day locally. Only my third York area American Wigeon, nevermind the first Glossy Ibis for York! Dunc was dead chuffed as the Ibis was a British tick for him. We decided to splash out so we drove down to the Costcutter in Wheldrake and bought Doubledeckers and pop. Happy days!

On down the valley. Thorganby was part-flooded but quiet although a Little Owl roosting in a Hawthorn was very nice.

North Duffield was still dry so we went up the bank at Bubwith. 69 Whooper Swans were the highlight here, looking majestic in the early afternoon sunshine.

Icelandic guests. Nice to see these guys back here for the winter. Plenty of juveniles too, so perhaps a good breeding season up north.

On to East Cottingwith, where another 15 Whoopers were on the Wheldrake refuge, plus three Pochards. No sign of the Ibis sadly, but the water looked too deep. Dunc checked the Low Grounds later on to no avail. Let's hope it hangs around a bit to gie other local birders the chance to see it.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

The Rare and Scarce Birds of the York Area 1965 -2015

Well, that took some work! Last week I received back from the printers a book I have spent the last few years putting together, documenting records of the rarer bird species to have been recorded in the York area since the formation of the York Ornithological Club. All members of the YOC will get a copy to mark our 50th anniversary, but if you are not a member then you will soon be able to purchase this book by visiting the York Ornithological Club monthly meetings, or through the YOC website. A snip at a fiver!! All money from sales will go to the YOC.

The cover sporting Mark Coates' super Bittern shot from North Duffield Carrs.

The idea was simple: pore over the last fifty years' worth of YOC annual reports, log all the records and then put them into a book. Simple, right? Wrong! As I dug through the archive, it became obvious that there was a lot of conflicting information, some major omissions and a fair bit of confusion. I decided early on that I would not attempt to judge records that had been deemed acceptable at the time, regardless of what I thought and regardless of what more recent developments in identification etc might confer to earlier decisions. I have got a number of records in mind, some accepted, some rejected, that I may suggest need another look at some point in the future by the relevant committee, but this was irrelevant to this book.

The main difficulties arose from the discrepancies between subsequent YOC reports, and between YOC and YNU bird reports and those of the BBRC. Also, Russ Slack's Rare birds of Yorkshire book and Craig Ralston's Birds of the Lower Derwent Valley book also contained various additional records which may or may not have been part of the 'official' record. Confusing stuff!

Another headache was about which species to include. Some rare species have not been included as they have been known to breed in the area and documentation is scant -rightly so too. In other cases, the statuses of species has changed markedly during the period and if the book was written again in a few years' time, species such as Turtle Dove and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker may well be included, whereas Little Egret and Red Kite would be excluded. In reality, it doesn't matter too much what is in and what is out, I was more bothered about ensuring that the records for the included species were as comprehensive and accurate as possible.

Hopefully, I have managed to wade through this mire and the result is an attempt at a robust documentation of the records of rarer birds published during the Club's history. Undoubtedly, other records may come to light, but thanks to the diligence and huge efforts of Dave Tate - to whom I owe a great debt of thanks - I am hopeful not too much has been missed.

If an accepted record is missing, please let me know and I will ensure it is included in a future edition. Likewise, if you have images of some of these birds I would love to hear from you. I am very grateful to the small number of birders who supplied me with some super images, but a bit disappointed that some very long-standing bird photographers in the York area did not want to help. This is a shame, because their work would undoubtedly be enjoyed by many people through this publication for many years to come.

A couple of pages...

The result of the work is a 74 page book which will hopefully be of interest to York area birders and possibly those beyond. Some records, such as a pratincole in 1980 only came to light during this project and otherwise may have remain hidden away. My friend and colleague Sally Henderson has done a great job of designing the book and I am grateful to her for this.

Lastly, I hope the book will inspire more birders to get out in the field locally, rather than always heading for the coast (yes, I am guilty of this!), as undoubtedly we are missing lots of locally rare stuff by under-watching Castle Howard, the LDV, etc. So get out there and find the next York Guillemot!!

Dunnington Pine Bunt - thanks to Josh Jones for this photo (pinched from his super blog

Ironically, York's rarest bird, the Dunnington Pine Bunting, turned up just too late for inclusion....Second edition coming soon! Possibly...

Saturday 4 November 2017

Hornbeam Grosbeaks

There has been a colossal invasion of Hawfinches in the UK in the last month or so. Whilst mostly down south, there have been lots turning up in Yorkshire in the last couple of weeks and it was only a matter of time before some were pinned down in the York area. First, a small flock, now numbering nine, were found in Gilling East and yesterday, 50+ were discovered in Yorkshire Arboretum near Castle Howard. I hadn't seen Hawfinches in the York area since I was a teenager as they have declined greatly in the county, so the presence of these birds tempted me to gather up Team Leadley and head east.

We soon found the birds, at first showing poorly against the light and hidden in the branches of a large Hornbeam, where they were quietly feeding. More birds arrived gradually, and besides the usual ticking call, were also heard to make a rather Redwing like 'seep'. With the afternoon sunshine peeking out, the birds became more obliging. At least thirty were seen, but with many more over near the visitor centre it was likely that there are 50-60 on site which must be one of the biggest ever flocks recorded in the York area. Some really creacking adults present, along with some drab juveniles with very little black below the bill and plain grey lores. Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Redpoll and Chiffchaff also noted, plus lots of familiar York and Yorkshire birders!!

 These two photos are of a juv. Much paler, drab beige in colour, with tiny black bib and no black around the eyes and on the lores.

Duncan Bye and Chris Gomersall enjoying the Hawfinch action

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Loop Guru

This autumn I have mostly been enduring westerly winds. For weeks on end. This week, a glimmer of hope in the forecast, and on cue last night it went easterly. As luck would have it, I had today (and tomorrow) booked off work, just in case this happened, so I headed off to Flamborough early doors. Parked by Old Fall and walked down towards the lighthouse. As soon as I got out of the car, a small gang of Bramblings wheezed overhead and a Chiffchaff called in the hedge. This showed promise. The loop didn't quite live up to expectations, although plenty of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Bramblings and Chaffinches overhead, along with small groups of Blackbirds, Redwings and here and there a Song Thrush. Very few Goldcrests were in evidence, but a few more Chiffchaffs and a Wheatear in the lighthouse car park. A Weasel scurried across the Bay Bramble steps in front of me.  It was fun birding, mainly because I have barely been out to the coast this autumn!

I went round the (Old Fall) Loop twice, but besides a late-ish Willow Warbler in Old Fall Plantation, failed to add anything new.

After lunch, I decided to head to the northside, to try Holmes Gut. A few more thrushes seemed to be coming in off, including this Song Thrush (below), so perhaps I would get lucky.

On falling out of the car, I immediately heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the sycamores by the Yorkshire Water compound. Cool! Right choice. Then the phone beeped and news of a Radde's Warbler came through from Bempton. Back in the car! A few minutes later and I pulled into the car park at Bempton, and headed for the nature trail. I followed two guys along the trail and soon came upon the finder and two other birders. Apparently the bird had showed but then got flushed by a family. As we waited, other birders arrived. After 15 tense minutes, it appeared behind us, so we spread out in the adjacent weedy field and grilled the hedge and weeds. A few brief glimpses by other birders suggested the bird was moving back up the hedge. I got two brief views of a dark shape in the last bush...tantalising!

It became apparent that it had flicked across into a bramble patch on the field edge. We gathered at the corner and suddenly there it was! A flicking olivey-yellow sprite with mahoosive supercilium and big orange legs. Corking! It flicked into the brambles and disappeared. I moved positions and shortly it bobbed out again, this time in full view on the barbed wire! Nice. It played hide and seek for a few moments and then reappeared again on top of the brambles long enough for me to attempt a photo, although the pic I got was just as the bird raised it's wings to fly off. During its sojourn in the bramble patch, I could heard it calling occasionally, a quiet and rather liquid 'chet'. Sadly for arriving birders, it then made it's way further along the field edge and over the brow and out of site. A male Blackcap showed briefly while we waited but our Rad friend did not reappear.

I decided to finish the walk I had started at Holmes Gut, so drove back to Flamborough. The Yellow-brow was in the Willows on arrival with a couple of Chiffchaffs, before flicking into the Elders. Plenty more Redwings and Blackbirds dropping in, and a few Goldcrests. An enjoyable day all told, with a bonus pair of Sibes to whet my appetite for the big day tomorrow!

Yellow-browed Warbler, Holmes Gut YWT. I never tire of seeing these little stripy dudes.

Saturday 30 September 2017

Mega Scops

I met Tom Middleton on his patch today, a small coastal valley at Ryhope, just south of Sunderland on the Durham coast.

On Wednesday, he had done his usual walk round his patch, full of expectation due to the easterly wind that was blowing in across the North Sea. He hadn't seen much before a fast-moving warbler caught his attention- he hoped for a Yellow-brow. As he raised his bins, a movement in the middle of the Elder bush caught his eye, and he found himself looking straight at a small owl. Having only seen Tawny Owl on his patch before, this was going to be a patch tick.

He got some photos and then the bird's head turned to face him revealing ear tufts - a Scops Owl! His hands began to shake and the net photo completely missed the target! He had found the first Scops for Durham - cracking! (The warbler was a Chiffchaff).

This tiny owl showed well to several hundred visitors that day, and again the next day, although it had moved roost and was difficult to see. Yesterday, the bird was not seen and I assumed I had missed my chance to see this cracking little vagrant; it had either moved on, or died, I assumed. Remarkably, today it was refound back in the original Elder bush.

I had an unexpectedly free afternoon, so hooking up with Chris and Paz, we cruised up the A19 to Ryhope. A short walk under the railway and the assembled birders were clearly still 'on it'. After a little bit of searching, there it was - lovely. What a super little bird. It stretched a bit, yawned and half-opened it's eyes, before going back into a doze in the dappled shade of the Elder. A little later, the sun came out and it seemed to not like the light, so turned it's head away - very cute.

Nearby, a Spotted Flycatcher performed, a beautiful migrant, accompanied by a skulking Barred Warbler, from Eastern Europe. Wow! A little later, we had a look at the sea, where a Red-throated Diver, complete with a mostly-red throat loafed offshore and a few common waders were roosting on the rocks as the tide rose. We bumped into a young lad who we chatted to - he then mentioned he had found this bird - this was Tom, and he generously told us the story of his mega find. Good work Tom!

 Barred Warbler, skulking
 Spotted Flycatcher
Paz, Chris and on the right, a very happy Tom Middleton