Thursday 27 September 2018


I never thought I would write a blog post about twitching a Beluga. 

The possibility of seeing one of these white Arctic whales in UK waters was simply unimaginable, so when one was found happily swimming about in the Thames Estuary near Gravesend by Dave Anderson (@Ipterodroma), I could not believe it, but the video on his ecstatic tweet was unequivocal. A Beluga in the Thames. Amazing!

Now, Gravesend is a long way from York, and it was the middle of the working week. My mind whirred. I had long dreamed of seeing this unique species, but a trip to the St Lawrence River or Hudson Bay in Canada was really out of reach for me, at least in the near future. So, to get a chance of seeing one four hours from home was very exciting and too good an opportunity to miss. 

By the evening, a selection of people I know had twitched it and by all accounts the whale was not some hopeless, moribund case like the Northern Bottlenose Whale that sadly died up the Thames a few years ago. An estuarine species, Belugas are very capable of navigating around cloudy river waters, using their pronounced echolocation system to find food. This whale, despite being a long way from home, seemed to be very active, feeding normally and swimming up and down a stretch of the Thames, commuting between Gravesend and Tilbury in Essex. I would not have been as keen to see this animal if it was at death's door, but as this was not the case, I hatched a plan. My old Mark Hawkes from Cambridgeshire was keen to go too, but we decided we'd wait on news, as it would be a long trek. 

Shortly before seven the next morning, the news came that there was no sign of the Beluga despite near perfect viewing conditions. Nevermind, it looked like it was not to be after all. I messaged Mark and we both went to work, although I packed my gear - just in case! 

Then, at 9.12am a tweet announced that it was back! I messaged Mark, said I'd be round his by midday, organised friends to pick up the kids, sorted out a dog walker and then got permission from my boss to have an emergency day off. Fire up the Quattro!


Five hours later, Mark and me arrived in Gravesend under a sky the colour of Marsh Gentians, warmed by balmy autumnal sunshine. We had struggled to get recent gen on the Beluga's whereabouts but took a punt on crossing the river to the Kent side; at least the light would be behind us, making viewing easier. As we approached Gravesend, a tweet from an acquaintance confirmed this was the right choice: the Beluga was still showing! Superb! We were getting close.

Down Mark Lane to the back of the Gravesend docks, park the car and out on to the riverbank path. Out of the car, gear on, I clipped a kerb and went sprawling face-first on to the concrete. My scope whacked me on the back of the head as my knees simultaneously hit gravelly concrete, in a huge clatter of optics and flesh. Two big holes tore in my jeans and searing pain shot down my right leg, along with a stream of blood; my right wrist twisted and grazed along the floor, and people came rushing over to see if I was ok. I think Mark struggled to hold back the giggles! 

Untangling myself from a web of straps, and peeling myself off the concrete, the adrenaline coursing through my body got me over the pain in an instant - we had a Beluga to see! I limped off down the path, the nearby landlord of the Ship and Lobster pub shouting "It's a 20 minute walk, lads" in broadest cockney into the dust we left in our wake. My knee was killing. Scanning through the bins, I could see a crowd of people gathered on the shore about 2KM away. Cripes! 

I suggested we maybe try and catch one of the nearby ponies that were grazing the riverbank to ride down the shoreline. Mark wasn't keen, so I limped on. 

What seemed an eternity later, but was probably 15 minutes, we stopped for a scan, and the shining white body of the Beluga broke the surface, glinting in the afternoon sun. Beluga!!!!!!

The pain vanished, and we scampered on down to the crowd. Within minutes, the whale casually surfaced again, about 500m out in the river. Wow! It blew as the round melon-shaped head broke the surface and a beady eye peeped out of the river, just above a stubby little beak. Three more breaths and the whale dived, with a slightly more arched tail stock. 

Five minutes later, and the Beluga surfaced again, this time really close, only 100m out. Incredible! Mark nailed it with his phone through his scope - awesome work! This was just stunning. The Beluga seemed to be feeding around the large moored barges. It would breath three to five times in succession, sometimes covering barely any distance, other times, actively moving  twenty or thirty metres between breaths. It would then dive and stay down for three to five minutes. Often it would stay in the same general area for several series of breaths and dives, but then moved on and would reappear a way away. Some absolutely massive ships came out of the docks and headed east down the river in the shipping channel, but the Beluga stayed well away, keeping much closer in to the side out of harm's way. Nearby, a rib from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue kept a watchful eye on proceedings, ensuring nothing untoward happened. Nobody seemed intent on coming to look in a boat, so they could relax and enjoy the spectacle themselves. 

A good crowd had gathered, many were birders, but plenty of  'normal' people too, keen to see this intrepid traveller for themselves. Here and there, film crews jostled for position and pestered onlookers for interviews. Meanwhile, the Beluga didn't notice, and happily carried on doing its thing. 

After a couple of hours of soaking up this once-in-a-lifetime experience, we bade farewell to this long-distance traveller that had provided so much excitement and enjoyment and wished it well, hoping it may find its way back north, if indeed that was its desire.

The view from Gravesend towards one of the barges.

Little Blue

Some flowers kind of catch my attention when thumbing through Rose. Not sure why, but the gentians are one gang that I have always felt are that bit special. It could be that some are rare, or maybe that they are indicators of really top quality habitat. I have seen plenty of purple Autumn Gentians over the years at various chalk grassland sites, but one I really wanted to see was the bright blue Marsh Gentian. This is a rare plant, an inhabitant of damp heathland, rather than marshes. I had found out that they grow on Strensall and Skipwith Commons near York. With my colleague Bernie, I went looking for them at Strensall Common a couple of weeks ago, without success. Mind you, it's a big place! With some local gen, I gave Skipwith Common a try and this time my luck was in. Well, sort of! It was pouring down and the three flowers I found were all closed-up. Oh well, getting closer! The weather looked more promising this week, so I headed back on Tuesday lunchtime and sure enough a couple of these gorgeous little blue flowers had opened. And what a treat! A really stunning little flower, growing in short, acid turf, among Cross-leaved Heath, Tormentil and a variety of grasses. Stunning!

Marsh Gentians, Skipwith Common, near York

The People's Walk for Wildlife - 22nd September 2018

We were part of the 10,000+ people demanding a better future for our wildlife. A fantastic day spent with kindred spirits in the pouring rain.

Monday 17 September 2018

York Birding Trip: Frampton Marsh and Fairburn Ings, Sunday 16th September 2018

Frampton Marsh RSPB

Frampton Marsh, viewed from the seawall.

After a hassle-free journey down to deepest Lincolnshire, we met up with the York Birding gang in the car park at Frampton Marsh. It was dry, but blowing a hoolie from the southwest; not too conducive to good birding unless you are seawatching in Cornwall! Anyway, we made our way to the big lagoon by the RSPB centre. One of the star attractions, an adult Long-billed Dowitcher had been present for over a week and had been reported already, so we started grilling a huge flock of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits, hoping to find this Snipe-sized Yank wader. After a while it became obvious the bird was either hidden in the middle of the flock, or was elsewhere, and the latter was confirmed when Jane got some gen from the site staff a little later. A solitary Bar-tailed Godwit was with the Blackwits, but soon flew off, presumably to find some more closely-related friends. Lots of other birds were present, including a brief Little Stint with some Dunlin, a few Ruff, distant Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plovers and Snipe. A Cetti's Warbler sang from a reed-lined ditch adjacent to the car park, and a few migrants headed over - Yellow Wagtail and Meadow Pipits. We headed towards the seawall following our Dowitcher Gen.

We carefully checked every patch of water we saw and this soon paid off when I picked up the distant Dowitcher, busy probing the water in a small creek. It showed well, but distantly and viewing was made a little more complicated due to the strength of the wind!

 Long-billed Dowitcher, looking rather short-billed...

York birders.

We carried on the circuit having admired a flock of spangly Golden Plovers, looking stunning in the early autumn sunshine. I was keen to look for Sea Aster bee. It was certainly warm enough and there was certainly a lot of flowering Sea Aster, but the gale was presumably keeping the bees in more sheltered places, so we drew a blank. This was amply made up for with some great birding and a lively Stoat. A Merlin whipped across the marsh, evading many of the group but a few sharp eyes picked the bird up. A Marsh Harrier hunted across the saltmarsh (Saltmarsh Harrier perhaps?) flushing Spotted Redshanks and Teal. From the seawall the Long-billed Dowitcher was a little closer and we enjoyed further views.
The Long-billed Dowitcher watches coyly as a juvenile Black-tailed Godwit wades in deep.

Nearby, a flock of 12 Spotted Redshanks gave great views, along with a couple of gorgeous Greenshanks, several Little Egrets and a flightly flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers.

 Greenshank and Spotted Redshank

 Elegant Spotshanks

A single Barnacle Goose of dubious origin dropped in from high up, and later we picked out a solitary Pink-footed Goose, which may have had more genuine wild credentials. Three Pintails were among freshly-arrived Wigeon and a cute juvenile Little Stint showed well from the 360 Hide. A rumour of a Curlew Sandpiper was perhaps more wishful-thinking than reality however!

Part Two: Fairburn Ings

We felt we had given Frampton a good grilling and decided to head back north. A few good birds had been seen over the weekend at Fairburn back in 'God's own' so that's where we headed. With a bit of gen, we met up at Lindike and were soon scanning New Flash looking for the reported Cattle Egret. Plenty of cattle, but no sign of any little white herons. Not to be deterred, we headed round to the hide. A fine juvenile Spoonbill was cavorting in the water and a Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Pintails and Black-tailed Godwits were on the flash. A Marsh Harrier flew past. Emanuela suggested that we would have a chance of spotting the egret from up the new trail which goes up the side of a large hill, so we headed up there. True to her word, after a long uphill slog, we reached the path along the hill and after a few minutes, Emanuela nailed it, spotting the Cattle Egret distantly back at New Flash! Eleven Spoonbills were impressive, but we didn't linger as we were keen to get a closer look at the egret.

The result of a successful breeding season at Yorkshire's only Spoonbill colony. Awesome scenes!

Our first view of the Cattle Egret. Good eyes Emanuela!

Back down to Lindike and the egret had obligingly moved on to a gate post, where it posed nicely, enjoying the evening sunshine. Close-by, four Whinchats were flycatching from the weed tops, giving great views.

It turns out it is not easy phone-scoping white birds in bright sunlight against a dark background!

This turned out to be the grand finale to a lovely day out with the York Bird Club. For more info about future trips, check out the website.

Whale-fest and Gannet Log Party

Mega YCN Whale and Seabird trip out of Staithes on Saturday.22+ Minke Whales gave numerous encounters over the course of the day, sometimes coming very close. At times we were surrounded by the sound of their explosive breaths as they surfaced, and the stinky smell of cabbage drifted across the sea (Minke breath is gross!). One young whale hung out with our drifting boat, at one point swimming straight under the hull much to our clients' delight. Seabirds were good too, with 6+ Bonxies, a dozen Manx Shearwaters, Arctic Skua, 10 Puffins and plenty of common stuff. Two weird things happened. Firstly, we came across a drifting log that had clearly fallen off a boat fairly recently. This had attracted a gang of Gannets who were clambering about on it, falling off, cackling hysterically and seemingly having a great time. Later, a cry of  'dolphin' went up and to my surprise, not a dolphin but a Harbour Porpoise leaping clear out of the water - not the usual behaviour! What was more remarkable was that there was over 15 individuals in this super pod, leaping around, chasing each other and coming alongside the boat. I have never seen porpoises behave like this, they are usually in twos and threes and rather shy of the boat. Never stop learning! The season is ending soon and there may still be some places left, so check out the Yorkshire Coast Nature website soon if you fancy seeing whales off the Yorkshire coast. It really is ace!

 The shot I have always wanted - Minke Whale with Staithes in the background.

Fulmar, a regularly seen seabird, but the light looked cool on this one.


Gannet log party. Unbelievable scenes!

Juvenile Bonxie on the prowl.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Winning Roseates

South Gare was heaving with birds and besides our friend the Pomarine Skua, there were lots of terns, waders and gulls to look through. A gang of Linnets and a single Whitethroat in a small bush were the only small birds of note.

We had a look through the terns on the rocky breakwater and picked out three adult and three scaly juvenile Roseate Terns- a real treat! The adults were still remarkably pink on the breast and with wholly black beaks, although one was developing a deep red base. They had mostly lost their long tail streamers. The compact, scaly young were very distinctive and spent most of the time harassing the nearby adults, which were presumably their parents. As the tide covered the rocks, the terns moved on to the beach and some of the Roseates gave great views, despite the onset of the rain. These are really gorgeous birds and I am pleased to hear they continue to increase at their only English breeding colony, Coquet Island in Northumberland. As autumn approaches, they will head off down to West Africa for the winter.

How many species can you see in this photo? Should be four...

Roseate Terns with Common Terns on the South Gare breakwater.

 Adult Roseate. Note how pale it is compared to the nearby Common Tern.

 Adult and juvenile.

Pomarine Menace

There's something cool and just a bit menacing about Pomarine Skuas. Like a large, more powerful version of an Arctic Skua, they are notorious for being the skua that will go for the bird rather than steal its food. I have seen plenty of Poms in my time, mostly flying past east coast headlands in stormy October northeasterlies, or cruising past the Outer Hebrides on their spring migration back to the Arctic (see here) and they always inspire an awe and just a touch of menace.

Skuas of all four species begin their southbound migration in August, and sometimes they may linger for a while along the coast if the feeding is good. A little over a week ago, a Pomarine Skua was found on the beach at South Gare, on the south bank of the River Tees' mouth and proceeded to hang out stealing fish scraps from the local anglers, and occasionally having a pop at the loafing terns. With a fairly free Saturday to play with and westerlies meaning few migrants would be on the east coast (ignoring the Icterine Warbler at Flamborough of course!), I decided to head north to pay homage to the Pom. I picked up Rich and headed up there, racing ahead of the rain band spreading in from the southwest.

The bird was present on arrival, loafing on the beach, completely unconcerned by the nearby presence of birders. After a bit it got up and flew about, attracted to the activities of the anglers on the seawall. As it cruised back along the beach it caused utter mayhem among the roosting gulls and waders, and attracted a steady stream of angry parent terns that noisily divebombed the skua, trying to keep it away from their young. With a heavy spotted breastband and flank markings, I suspect this is a female, and with plain dark underwing coverts, seemingly an adult. She had pretty good spoons, but certainly not as impressive as the spring males I have seen. Despite the ever-present menace, she was pretty chilled and didn't seem that interested in murderous pursuits. If I was a young tern, I would certainly take no chances though!

Mrs Spoons. At the bottom, eyeing up an adult Roseate Tern standing on the tideline.

The Humpback Ghost

Last Saturday, we had a great Yorkshire Coast Nature whale and seabird trip out of Staithes. We saw about 15 Minke Whales, a Sooty Shearwater, some Manx Shearwaters and lots of common seabirds. Best of all, we saw a large whale, presumably a Humpback blowing in the distance. Sean, our skipper, spotted this first looking back towards the shore. I saw a large bushy blow three times, before the animal vanished. We chugged over but there was no sign. The atmosphere on the boat was electric as we scoured the sea looking for the leviathan. Ten minutes later, we found it again. It blew four times and this time some back was visible, but it was facing away so the fin was hardly visible.It then disappeared, like a ghost. The blow was large c6 feet and bushy. I suspect this was a Humpback Whale, but sadly I could not clinch it. There was debate on board about whether Minkes could ever behave like this, but I have never seen it if they do. Hopefully somebody will see it again and clinch the ID. Whatever the result, it added to a very exciting trip, with stacks of great Minke Whale sightings and a boat full of happy clients.

Minke Whales, off Staithes. With the variety of dorsal fin shapes on offer, it should be possible to track some of these individuals.