Saturday 28 April 2018

Super York!

So, the great local birding has continued....

52 Whimbrel into roost on Tuesday night at Wheldrake Ings, which had increased to 76 by Thursday.

A stonking male Ring Ouzel was discovered at Acaster Airfield on 26th April, and showed well early evening, in a tilled field, with five Wheatears and c20 Pied Wagtails. Second York tick in a week. Kapow!

Saturday, 28th April

Fitted in a bit of birding today between kids parties etc. Hes East held two Common Sandpipers and a singing Reed Warbler, but not the hoped-for Arctic Terns, despite the cold northeasterly wind.

Down to North Duffield Carrs before tea, revealed an awesome pair of amorous Garganey, with the drake's rattling song and head-bobbing display gaining him enough kudos to get a bit of lovin'.

And a bit of video....

Super York birding!

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Zeiss Yorkshire Terriers: Movie Stars!

I put together a little video compilation for our Champions of the Flyway Trip to Eilat, Israel. I hope you like it - click here

Monday 23 April 2018

Not a bad patch


Evening visit to Wheldrake Ings which is still flooded although all hides are now accessible. 14 Whimbrel had come into roost by 8pm, while two male and one female Garganey cavorted on the refuge, with another drake in the Teal flock on the main flood. At least four Little Egrets flew back towards the heronry as the sunset.

Poor phonescoped images of the three Garganey on the refuge. One drake seemed to be dominating proceedings and the other kept trying his luck. 


Gorgeous Icelandic Whimbrel, having travelled back from their wintering grounds in West Africa are now feeding and resting before their next leg, back up to their breeding grounds in Iceland. With high water levels, they are roosting conveniently for us, right in front of the Tower Hide.

Fizzy Warbler

With a face of brilliant, primrose-yellow, a back and wings matching the bursting vivid-green birch leaves, and the silkiest of silky-white underparts, a Wood Warbler singing in a spring woodland takes some beating. The song is a mesmerising and memorable cascade of silvery notes, interspersed with a fluting Woodlark-like 'lu-lu-lu'. Definitely one of my favourite spring migrants and this year, I have been lucky enough to see two in three days. The first, a surprise, was found as we explored Birch Wood, a new Yorkshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve in Bilsdale, north of Helmsley. The bird sang occasionally - it was the middle of the day - and at first I thought it had eluded me in all but voice, but then he appeared close to us, floating through the mid canopy in display, before settling on an exposed branch to preen. If only I had had a camera with me!

The next was twitched on Sunday, as local artist Jonathan Pomroy had discovered a singing bird at Yearsley, in the north of the York area. This was a long-desired York area tick for me, the species having become very scarce in our area following many years of breeding in small numbers.The state of affairs is reflected nationwide, as the breeding range of Wood Warblers is sadly contracting in response to a rapid population decline, particularly in the lowlands of England, so it is especially heartening to find this bird in a former haunt. Let's hope he finds a mate and breeds successfully.

These two pics show the key features of this Mega-Phyllosc. The lemon-face with a long yellow supercilium contrasts with a well-marked dark eyestripe. The bird has pure white underparts, contrasting with the lemon yellow breast top. On the bottom photo you can see the Firecrest-green upperparts. The structure is equally distinctive and helpful when viewed from underneath. The white undertail coverts are really long, nearly reaching the tail tip and the wings are very long too, similar in length to the undertail coverts.

I found the Yearsley bird easily, as it was singing frequently in the mid-morning sunshine. I spent a magical half an hour with him as he zipped round his canopy and sub-canopy territory, like an effervescent, winged sherbet lemon, fizzing and fluting among the bright green birch leaves. A real April treat.

These pics were phonescoped - not easy on a fast moving warbler!

Tuesday 17 April 2018

COTF18: Bird Race Part Two - The Bush-chat and the Stolen Socks

After the heady heights of Hadoram's Pumpkins and the unbelievably gorgeous Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, I am not quite sure what happened during the next couple of hours. Back in the room a little later, and we arrived at North Beach to paddle, add a few terns and gulls to the race list and see the sun set over the Eilat Mountains. Not a bad way to end our Champions of the Flyway bird race daylight!

I spent a bit of time on the gulls, despite their distance and was pretty sure I was on a second summer Armenian among the Caspians and Baltics....The heat had been pretty intense and I was a bit fried by this point. The Red Sea looked cool and inviting, so I kicked off my shoes, laid my grim, sweaty socks on a boulder to dry out, and went for a paddle. The pleasure was incredible! The water was surprisingly cool and clear and just what my aching feet needed. I headed back up the beach and got back to work, scanning for anything winged that moved.

Keeping an eye on Jordan.

It was time to go and this is when things got a bit strange. There was no sign of my socks. I assumed the wind had blown them off the rock. No. Then, of course, the cheeky Terriers had stolen them. Apparently not. In all the commotion, the German birder behind us started to laugh and explained that an Israeli child had taken them. He hadn't said anything as he thought they were his, but now he realised that wasn't the case. My socks had been stolen!! My grim - disgustingly grim - 16 hour-old in 35 degree heat, sweaty socks had been stolen. Unbelievable!


We decided we still had time to dash up the channel towards the IBRCE to look for the Broad-billed Sandpiper which had been reported again. Rich was expecting a call from BBC Radio York to talk live about the Champions. We piled in the car, I was driving. We reached the bottom end of the channel and we were surprised to see a big group of birders all intently watching something. We assumed the BBS had moved, but could not be sure. Mark said he would jump out and signal for us to come if they had it. Just then, the phone rang; it was the BBC. Rich's live interview was starting after Dire Straits! Mark beckoned. We all piled out and headed over. Mark's words, 'There's a %%%££% Rufous Bush-chat!", was quite a surprise, as this was the last thing we were expecting! I got on the bird, hopping around by some small bushes, zipping up to flycatch, cocking this huge ginger tail with black and white tipped feathers like a flag; an absolute belter, in the fading evening light. I struggled to keep it together. What a stonking bird, looking like a proper East Coast vagrant, on a bit of scrubby wasteland, complete with toilet paper (nice), and a lifer for Rich and me to boot. Rich held it together incredibly well, as he calmly explained about the race and the amazing birds we had been watching during the day, while I (apparently) swore my head off in the background!

Rufous Bush-chat. Now known as Rufous-tailed Bush-robin. But I prefer the name I grew up with!

Getting ourselves together, we overheard from the Americans that there had been a Temmick's Stint in the channel. A bit of scope work later and there we had the small, yellow-legged stint, creeping around on the muddy edge. Nice. Could we do the Broad-billed Sand too? What a final fifteen minutes of daylight this would be. We could see a car about 500 metres along the bank, so wasting no time we shot up there. Sadly, the guys said there was no sign of the BBS among the wader flock in front of them. I was fairly surprised when the first bird I got my scope on was in fact the BBS! They were very pleased as they were really aiming for a big bird race total. We told them about the Temmick's; they headed off in a cloud of dust. What a hat-trick to end the day: Rufous Bush-chat, Temmick's Stint and Broad-billed Sand. Not sure I will pull that off again in a hurry! Now, where did those socks go?

The same old broad bean. But a little belter nevertheless.


And after a couple or three hours driving around fruitlessly in the dark, we ended out quest at 9pm and headed back to the IBRCE for tea and medals. We had scored 123, after Yoav Perlman removed a couple of our gulls (Armenian and Steppe). Not bad, and a new record for the 28KM Eilat Bird Area!!

Sunday 8 April 2018

COTF18: Bird Race Part One - Hadoram's Pumpkins

The day was upon us. We had set our mini playing field and had set our alarms for 3am. We knew several of the teams would already be out and birding by this time, but we wouldn't be driving so far, so more time in bed seemed wise. Darren had his own record to attempt - to paint in the field, more birds than anybody else had done in 24 hours.

About 3.30am we registered, were photographed and the game was on. Darren was off the mark within minutes, as our headlights illuminated Baltic and Caspian Gulls, roosting on the saltpans.

Our race was truly enjoyable, taking in many of the sites we had reccied in previous days and mostly going to plan, with some superb bonus birds. With our own playing field, we had removed much of the pressure from ourselves, so could genuinely enjoy the birding. Our final tally was 123, pitifully low compared with the winning team, but incredibly enjoyable and with some very memorable moments. I managed four lifers too during the day, Streaked Scrub Warbler in the beautiful Wadi Se'ifim, Barbary Falcon, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Rufous Bush-chat. Not too bad!

A couple of moments really stand out for me, and sum up the attitude of Team Yorkshire Terrier perfectly. The first is Hadoram's Pumpkins.

Hadoram's Pumpkins

Hadoram and the Terriers

When we met the Israeli bird legend Hadoram Shirihai at the COTF launch dinner, I had to ask him for his advice for race day. He replied rather conspiratorially that we must check the pumpkins at KM19. This didn't seem like the most radical advice from the great man, but fair enough. Mid-morning we got news that the pumpkin field at KM19 had a singing Rufous Bush-chat and four Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters-both would be new birds for me - Hadoram's pumpkins had come up trumps!

We were heading that way and decided we must make time for Hadoram's pumpkins. As the alien forms of the pumpkins hove into view, Rich suddenly yelled 'falcon'. I stopped the car and we all piled out to see the spectacular form of an adult Barbary Falcon powering west straight overhead! Amazing! We drove round into the pumpkin fields. Two Cretzchmar's Buntings were on the wires, but not much else stirred.

The warm, north wind had got up. It was 35 degrees and the middle of the day. It was no surprise we couldn't hear a note from the Bush-chat. A nice Tawny Pipit made it on to the Race list, but was not much consolation. No sign of the bee-eaters either, they were undoubtedly long gone as none seemed to hang around during the week.

We decided to walk back along the tracks through the field. Suddenly, Rich yelled for a second time: 'Bee-eater!' We all looked up, and an emerald-green apparition with fiery underwings literally shone above us, like an avian angel. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater!! We all fell to our knees among Hadoram's pumpkins as this winged-marvel glided around us. It settled distantly on a wire; I looked round, the Terriers were lost for words.

Distant Blue-cheek

The bird race was put on hold, we spent the next hour sitting in the middle of the pumpkin field drinking up every last detail of this stunning bird, which made it's way closer and closer. This really was a special bird for me. Back in 1989, one of these beauties had turned up at Cowden in East Yorkshire, but the news that reached me as a young teenager was that it was 'just' a Bee-eater, not a Blue-cheeked. It was a difficult place to get to, so I didn't bother. It was a couple of weeks later that I found out it's true identity, and by then, it was long gone. It was almost 30 years later, but boy was it worth the wait!
Our beautiful friend.

This bird was an avian ninja. It made frequent sorties after bees and occasionally dragonflies and never missed. It would fly up to 200m from its perch and would always come back with an insect, which it quickly dispatched and then swallowed whole. The bright colours on its face seemed to attract passing bees and twice the bird grabbed the opportunity, karate-kid style.

Meanwhile, Darren was busy painting and Rich and Mark were delivering an impromptu comedy routine, providing the perfect soundtrack to the experience. An Indian Silverbill provided a nice distraction as did a female Caspian Stonechat. What a place Hadoram's pumpkins had proved to be. The Bee-eater decided it was time to check out the other end of the field. The phone rang and it was time for Rich to do an interview with the BBC. I decided to wander down the field, Mark followed. As I walked past Rich, he was explaining to the reporter about the illegal hunting of Quail in eastern Europe. 25 metres later and a bird erupted out of the pumpkins almost at my feet. I yelled 'Quail!' and even Rich managed to get on it as it whirred low across the field and dropped into cover. Did that really just happen?!

Reaching the far end of the field we realised that we had literally been frying in the midday heat, so water and air-conditioning was needed. Darren, on the other hand, didn't seem bothered, and settled down to finish off his Bee-eater paintings. I took him some water, and managed to get a bit of footage as the bird returned with a dragonfly.

So thank you Hadoram, your pumpkin field proved to be avian heaven.

Saturday 7 April 2018

COTF18: Day Six, keeping it local

In advance of race day, we spent the day checking out some local sites. Our plan was to restrict our race to within 28KM of the IBRCE at Eilat, one kilometre for every thousand dollars we had raised. Down at the IBRCE, a gang of Red-necked Phalaropes span around the inlet, while a flock of stately Black-winged Stilts looked on.

Red-necked Phalaropes, Black-winged Stilt (bottom).

A female Citrine Wagtail was showing incredibly well from the hide nearby, although was struggling a bit in the strong north wind, while five Squacco Herons and a couple of Purple Herons dropped in to the marsh.

News came through of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in the drainage channel just south of the IBRCE, so we headed down for a look. The Birding Ecotours gang were there and we spent an enjoyable half an hour watching this smart little wader in the company of Dunlin and a Marsh Sandpiper.

The Broad-bean. Silvery upperparts, with distinctive head pattern and broad, drop-tipped bill. Perhaps 10-15% smaller then nearby Dunlins. Together with Marsh Sandpiper in bottom two pics.

Later, we checked out Ofira Park in downtown Eilat. This little migrant oasis revealed a lovely male Woodchat Shrike that seemed to drop in out of the sky, plus a Northern Wheatear, c20 Lesser Whitethroats and three Tree Pipits. Two buntings feeding on the grass with the local spuggies were called by Rich as Cretzchmar's, before I pleaded that they must be Ortolans. They certainly didn't fit with my search image for Cretz! After a little while, some Scandinavian birders turned up and stated they were Cretzchmar's after all, probably first summer birds. This was mind blowing. They showed very well on a close mown lawn and gave us chance to look through the features. The white eye-ring was distinct (should be cream in Ortolan) and the breast streaking was limited to the centre of the upper breast. The head was perhaps slaty-blue-grey rather than greeny-grey and the birds certainly had a warm brick tinge. Not quite was I was imagining, but really interesting stuff!

COTF18 Day Five: Hit the North

Following our epic day, we chilled out and rested our weary paws around Eilat. We checked out Holland Park once we'd emerged from our kennels, seeing little of note except a few Sand Partridges and my first Arabian Babblers. A few raptors had started coming over, so we headed up to the cemetary to see if that would give us a closer view. This proved to be a good move and our impending lunch was postponed as we watched a stream of birds flow over us, heading north. The majority were Steppe Buzzards - we estimated c1,000 birds, along with our first dozen Steppe Eagles, plus a Short-toed Eagle, 125+ Black Kites, two Pallid Harriers and a Marsh Harrier. The female Blue Rock Thrush was still hanging out, but she barely got a glance.
On 24th we were up at 4am and piling northeast in the darkness towards Nizzana and a few desert specialities. It turned out the Birding Ecotours and Leica Welsh Red Kites had had the same idea, and we were soon in this mind convoy, heading for the grassy steppe-like plains. We hit our destination just after dawn, and were greeted with the remarkable site of two old WW1 train carriages that had been turned into a bird hide! Slightly surreal.

This railway was constructed by the Turkish military in WW1 to transport troops to the Suez Canal to try and capture it from the British.

After a tense wait, one of the guys picked up a distant MacQueen's Bustard, the target of our quest. Training our scopes on to this stately bird, he suddenly tucked in his head, exploded persil-white feathers out over his breast, and began running along a ridge, in a crazed display. Spectacular stuff!

We watched this superb beast for half an hour or so, before he melted away behind some rocks.To our surprise it started to rain! Next, we turned our attention to some of the other locals, including Bar-tailed Desert Larks and several Cream-coloured Coursers. A shout of 'raptor' got us looking up and we were greeted with the sight of several Steppe Buzzards and two Lesser Spotted Eagles heading over.

C-C C, Nizzana

It was time to leave. A couple of stunning male Pallid Harriers and a close Short-toed Eagle appeared, and an aucheri Southern Grey Shrike sang sweetly from a thorn bush. Nearby, an Arabian Babbler scolded me as I used the facilities, and a very dark wheatear fooled me into calling Cyprus Wheatear, but closer views revealed it was 'just' a dark female Black-eared. More learning!


We continued on to some saltpans, where a large flock of Ruff huddled against the strong northerly winds with two Curlew. Mark picked up a small falcon sitting on the salt-crust. A Merlin! Very pale and very unexpected; shortly, he powered off across the desert.

A little further on, we saw five Collared Pratincoles leaving the sewage pools we failed to find, but we did see a smart male Ortolan Bunting and a Wryneck on a bit of waste ground. A security guard was interested in what we were up to, so we thought it was best we move on. 20 Steppe Eagles were taking great interest in something south of the road and nearby, towards Mispe, we came across a lush green oasis that just had to be checked out. A smart Masked Shrike, first of our trip, hunted bees from the bushes, but all we could find in the trees were the usual Lesser Whitethroats, a brief male Ruppell's Warbler, some Greenfinches and a couple more Ortolans.

Masked delight.

Terriers at the Oasis

Striped hawkmoth caterpillar

Sde Boqer Kibbutz was our next stop, a rather wooded, fenced community. A stonking Palestine Sunbird showed well in a garden and a few Blackbirds seemed a little out of place. Two impressive pied Egyptian Vultures cruised over and three Wrynecks loafed in the shade of a small copse. A very pale Tristris-esque Chiffchaff was interesting, but was left unnamed.

Just south, a couple of lined reservoirs held two Little Grebes, whilst overhead the awesome sight of an Alpine Swift enthralled us. On the fence, our target, Desert Finch showed well and we enjoyed great views of these lovely birds as they fed on the track-edge and posed on the barbed wire.

 Desert Finches, Sde Boqer Reservoir.

A brief tour of Mispe Ramon failed to reveal the reported Syrian Serins, but we couldn't expect everything to show, so we had a quick look at the Ramon Crater, feeling like proper tourists. Our first Nubian Ibex showed on the rocky slopes and a White-crowned Black Wheatear posed in the car park with a Blackstart.

We headed for Eilat. No carcasses were at the vulture watchpoint and too many birders were at the Sinai Rosefinch wadi, so we didn't bother to stop. A handsome male Hen Harrier drifted along the road just west of Lotan as we approached R90, the sole bird of the trip, and possibly trumping the many male Pallids we had seen in terms of looks.

We were due back at the IBRCE in Eilat, for the Bird Race talk. Greetings, stories and gen were swapped freely with the other teams and we took careful note of the rules. Good spirits, and mounting excitement for the race were much in evidence, for the day after tomorrow.