Monday 30 December 2019

Bohemian like you

Great to catch up with some Waxwings this morning in Thirsk, after three unsuccessful trips to Askham Bar, York this month.

Delightful as ever, the seven Bohemian beauts were flycatching happily in the mild sunny weather between bouts of berry gorging in the Lidl car park Rowan trees. Sol and Addie poked their heads out of the sunroof for a look.

One first year male was colour-ringed and a bit of investigation by @NathanielDargue identified it as having been rung in Aberdeen on 7th December. Cool!

The commentary was not mine....

Later, we drove through Sleddale but failed to find the reported Rough-legged Buzzard.

Sunday 29 December 2019

Mediterranean Christmas

Wheldrake Gull blizzard

Did the gull roost at Wheldrake Ings this afternoon and Chris Gomersall had just found a smart adult Mediterranean Gull when I walked in to Tower Hide with Adam.

Large numbers of Black-headed and Common Gulls roosted, with a few hundred Herring and Great Black-backed. Later on, Chris picked up an adult Med again; we wondered if it was the same bird, but bill colour and mask shape suggest it was a different bird. We walked back along the river in a gorgeous sunset.

 "It's hard work being this good looking..."


Work has been so crazy busy that I have barely had any brain power left to blog, so apologies if you have been missing my drivel. I have still managed to escape to do some birding and a lot of gigging, so it has been a pretty enjoyable time too.

Looking back, as the month draws to a close, here are some of the bits and bobs I've seen.

7th December - Lower Derwent Valley

The valley is very flooded now. A male Cetti's Warbler has been hanging out by the Pocklington Canal at East Cottingwith and today showed well, scolding my presence. It occasionally sang too, the first time I've heard this distinctively abrupt outburst in the York area. It came very close, and I managed a bit of video with my phone.

From the same spot, a first-winter drake Scaup could be seen loafing with Tufted Ducks on the Wheldrake Ings refuge.

Scaup - right hand bird

Another Scaup was present on the floods by Aughton Church followed by two first-winter females on Wheldrake Ings, from Tower Hide.

Scaup - third from right.

Two Scaups. @Recordshotmyarse would be proud.

This adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was enjoying some winter sunshine on a hay bale at North Duffield Carrs. This species is not very common in the York area in winter. Four Russian White-fronted Geese were at Thorganby, before flying off north.

14th December - Wheldrake Ings

Went for a quick look at Wheldrake with Sol. The Derwent was pouring out of its channel on to the Ings (exactly as it should be!) and so wellies were essential. Nothing much of note, but large numbers of wildfowl, including over 200 Pintails and probably several thousand Teal and Wigeon. Impressive stuff.

Sol, alongside the flooded Derwent, Wheldrake Ings.

21st December - North Duffield Carrs

A Scaup was on Bubwith Ings viewed from NDC and a cool murmuration of Starlings over Aughton attracted a Peregrine. 15 Ruff, including the returning white-headed male, were hanging out on the riverbank.

Scaup in the gloom.

28th December - Castle Howard and LDV

I was a bit dismayed to find the gate locked at Castle Howard lake but whilst pondering what to do, I heard the distinctive call of a Cetti's Warbler from the nearby swamp. After a bit of patience, I eventually got a brief view of the skulker, and managed to record a bit of it's call. This is the second record of Cetti's at Castle Howard; the first I found in January on a York Bird Race a couple of years ago. A real bonus. I had a look on the lake, but few ducks present, possibly due to the early floods in the LDV meaning that incoming waterfowl had headed straight there. Nevertheless, about ten Goosander, twenty Goldeneye, c50 Wigeon, c75 Teal and half a  dozen Tufted Ducks were present. Not much else of note, besides a large Siskin flock in the trees on the opposite side of the lake, and a Nuthatch calling from behind the caravan park. On to the LDV, I checked out Melbourne first, where a Little Egret was on the bank of the Pocklington Canal. I then headed down to Ellerton. Very few birds present, mainly because of the guy walking his huge dog down the floodbank and a hunting Marsh Harrier quartering the flooded meadows.

Looking to the north, I spied two distant swans in the middle of the ings, which looked very interesting, sporting short necks, rounded heads and seemingly mostly-dark beaks. With zoom power, my hunch was confirmed as I discovered two adult Bewick's Swans! Class.

Distant Bewick's Swans

Bewick's Swans used to be as common as Whooper Swans in the LDV in winter, but alas they are now rare visitors. Their decline is presumably down to their overall population decline linked to hunting in Russia, plus milder winters meaning fewer come over from the Low Countries these days. Lovely birds and a real joy to watch. I put the news out and then shortly they took flight and headed towards me, following the river. To my surprise, they banked and headed straight towards where I was standing at Ellerton Church! I urged them to land on the water in front. but they changed course and headed south down the ings. Duncan and Peter turned up as I was leaving, and I gave them the bad news.

Bewick's Swan fly-past

A few miles and minutes later, I pulled up at Aughton Church, only to see the swans heading past. I filmed them with my smartphone as they made their way down the Derwent. They banked over to the east and looked like they were probably heading for Bubwith Ings to join up with the wintering Whooper Swan herd.

Two first-winter drake Scaup were present on Aughton Ings, along with a large mixed flock of Pochard and Tufted Ducks. Ten Goldeneye noted plus a Curlew on the riverbank.

Scaup with Pochards, Aughton Ings.

On to Aughton, I met up with Duncan, Peter and Adam, and after a bit of searching, I relocated one of the Bewick's in with the Whoopers. We walked round to get closer views and Duncan picked up the second bird roosting at the back of the flock. Very nice indeed. Time was getting on, so after soaking up awesome views of these two gorgeous Siberian visitors, I headed off.

Bewick's Swans, generally cuter in appearance than the larger Icelandic Whoopers: note the rounded, less wedge-shaped head compared to the Whoopers, plus the shorter neck, smaller size and the small rounded patch of yellow at the bill base.

Sunday 10 November 2019

Late Autumn East Coast Magic!

They say nature is good for you. I have been immersed in nature all my life and so it is something I have taken for granted I guess. However, after a really difficult and stressful week, a morning birding around Flamborough Head mostly on my own, was just what I needed, to unwind and get things in perspective.

The morning started well, despite the early start, and I had a traffic-free journey to the Cape. Old Fall was, to my surprise, deserted. I wondered whether other birders were seawatching, given the lively northeaster' blowing, or perhaps enjoying a suppressed Siberian Blue Robin...Anyway, I was here to chill, so I put these thoughts out of my head and enjoyed the solitude and dawn at Old Fall, a truly magical place.

Five Snow Buntings with a Linnet flock were the first birds of interest. Siskins were bounding around, with some flocks arriving in from Bridlington Bay.  I counted about 70 in two hours. After an hour and a half of solitary searching, I finally heard the Hume's Warbler calling from near the pond. I had begun to think it had gone, so was relieved and headed round there. After a bit, I found it, loosely associating with a Chiffchaff and a couple of Goldcrests. A smart little bird, but in less than a minute it melted away again. A little later I saw another stripy Phyllosc; this one seemed brighter green and whiter underneath; Yellow-browed Warbler? Sadly it didn't call and I didn't get a good enough view to be sure. It is getting late for YBWs, but there could be an odd straggler passing through.

After another another half an hour, I was frozen and it was getting busy (I had seen two birders approaching!), so I decided to head off. The lure of a hot drink and another Hume's Warbler was strong, so I headed to Bempton RSPB where the Hume's Warbler performed really well, calling regularly and showing well at times. The bird was brighter than the Old Fall bird, but still dingy compared with YBW, with a sullied eyebrow, dark greyish crown (rather than green) only one wingbar, without the dark  'shadow' and darker bill and legs. The call - which you can hear just about on the video below was a bit Pied Wagtail-esque, but not as strident or high pitched as Greenish Warbler. Certainly distinctive from YBW. I celebrated this East Coast Magic and the healing powers of nature-immersion, with a vegan hot dog and a latte from the RSPB cafe. How very modern!


Listen very carefully!

Sunday 3 November 2019

Exotic Splash

Four drake Red-crested Pochards (found by Duncan Bye) at Aughton Ings provided an exotic splash of colour on a relatively drab autumn afternoon. Three were quietly hanging out on the edge of the Willow coppice, strikingly handsome among the monochrome vertical reflections, while another was mixed in with the Aythya flock and occasionally displaying to a female Common Pochard. This spectacular duck undoubtedly occurs as an occasional vagrant from the continent, but the picture is confused by many escaped birds and feral breeders, so it is impossible to know where this quartet came from. Nevertheless, they are a lovely bird to see. Also noted, 58 Pochards and c120 Tufted Ducks.

 RCP with two Common Pochards.

On to North Duffield Carrs via Bubwith Ings. The water levels are high in the valley now and attracting lots of birds; my highlights were two Marsh Harriers, an adult female Peregrine, 29 Ruffs, 3 Dunlins and c500 Golden Plovers. No sign of anything rarer among the plovers though one Goldie with a black belly was interesting.

Classic LDV scene: Golden Plovers and Lapwings, with feeding Ruffs in the background.

Saturday 2 November 2019

Kentish Glory

OK, well not the moth which is the real Kentish Glory, but a glorious Kentish Plover, which Duncan Bye and myself enjoyed, in autumnal sunshine on Redcar beach.

A declining species in Britain, KPs used to breed until habitat destruction pushed them out decades ago. So, despite them being named after the county of their discovery, they are no longer a native of that county, nor anywhere else in Britain for that matter. Illustrating their rarity perhaps, this bird is only the second I have seen in Britain, the first being many years ago in North Norfolk.

KP together with a Ringed Plover. Note smaller size, paler upperparts and differences in head and breast patterns.

This one seemed very content, feeding with Ringed Plovers and Sanderlings, among the kelp-strewn tideline. Good numbers of other birds were present including a smart Long-tailed Duck, c50 Common Scoters and c20 handsome Common Eiders, riding the rough surf.

Difficult phonescoping due to the strong wind! Apologies for the shake.

We headed on to South Gare, where a few Twite were with the local Linnet gang, two Snow Buntings flew around calling and a fine second-winter Mediterranean Gull had joined the local Black-heads to scrounge for crusts, from the car-bound picnickers.

Nearby, a Red-throated Diver was behaving strangely, coming close in to the beach. On closer inspection, it was apparent that this sad juvenile had hooked itself on some discarded fishing tackle. The hook was clearly visible in the bird's gape and the head was wrapped in nylon line. It was still fit, so we couldn't get near it to help, and the local gulls chased it into deeper water. I felt helpless; such a beautiful bird facing a grim and totally unnecessary death. Yet another victim of our carelessness. This put a downer on the end of an enjoyable couple of hours birding Teesside.

Thursday 31 October 2019

Fighting for Askham Bog

Back in the early summer, the City of York Council rejected a proposal to build a large housing development in the fields to the north of Askham Bog nature reserve.

Barwoods, who put in the planning application, are appealing against the Council's decision. The appeal will be heard by the Planning Inspector at a public inquiry which starts at 10am on Tuesday 12th November and will run Tuesday to Friday for three consecutive weeks. It will be held at the York City Church, The Citadel, Gillygate. Members of the public are invited to attend. If you care about Askham Bog, please peacefully make your support for the Council's decision known and come along to the inquiry.

I hope to see you there.

I will share some of my memories of Askham Bog over the next few weeks.

Thanks for your support. This is my 700th post on this blog. How appropriate!


Wednesday 30 October 2019

Magical Sprites

On Unst back in September, we saw up to 20 Yellow-browed Warblers each day. They are gorgeous, magical little sprites, always restless, hovering to pick aphids from dying Sycamore leaves, and hopping along wire fences looking for spiders.

Photo by Rich Baines taken at Norwick, Unst

Yellow-brows are a fab little migrant, seemingly having established a new migration route in the last decade or two (research is still ongoing), indeed, they can sometimes be the commonest warbler on the east coast and the Northern isles these days. However, they will always be a special bird, and I feel that if you get tired of seeing Yellow-brows, you are truly tired of life! I can recall my very first, back in 1986 at the tip of Spurn Point, East Yorkshire, buzzing about in a tree close to the Heligoland trap. Another fond memory is of one I found in Askham Bog in autumn 1996, the first record for the York area.

The one in the short video below was in the gully near our croft at Norwick, close to where the Tengmalm's Owl rocked up back in the spring. It was incredibly confiding, feeding in this stunted Sycamore within a metre or so of me. The video was with my handheld smartphone.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Short-toed Lark, Lamba Ness, Unst

We saw this Short-toed Lark a few times while we were staying on Unst. It was rather exhausted when it arrived but by the following day had perked up and was flying around calling a lot. A very pale, sandy bird and the first I've seen in the UK since the one I was involved in finding on the Outer Hebs in 2013. Short-toed Larks seem to have declined in the last decade or so with most records turning up on offshore islands these days.

Unst-oppable Urges

Finding tiny migrant birds on a remote outpost like Unst, the northernmost Shetland Isle, demonstrates what an unstoppable urge migrant birds have, to get away from the inhospitable climate developing in their breeding grounds with the onset of autumn, and head south for warmer, more food-rich wintering grounds.

With very little vegetation around, birds such as Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts, Yellow-browed and Willow Warblers can be found in all sorts of strange places, hopping along roads or wire fences, diving amid boulders in old quarries and slinking through woodpiles. Checking thistle and nettle beds undoubtedly revealed a warbler or two, often a Siberian Lesser Whitethroat.

A Redstart near the Balta Light Bar, with a pronounced pale wing panel...Mark retrieved some poo for DNA analysis.

 Whinchat on the Norwick road

Arctic Bullets

Redeemed my Christmas present from Sol (I new it would come in handy eventually) for a day out birding on the east coast.

The weather looked promising, but I suspect the northeasterly was relatively new, so it was a bit early for birds to be pouring in. Nevertheless, the blow had pushed Little Auks (Dovekies in American) into Bridlington Bay, and as we walked along the sunny southside of the head, we watched a couple of small flocks heading back out to sea, like Arctic-bound bullets.

A trio of Little Auks flying past Old Fall

It was very quiet on land, with Old Fall Plantation being the only place with any migrants: c40 Blackbirds, 6 Redwings, Fieldfare, Chiffchaff, 2 Bramblings and 2 Siskins.

We headed down to South Landing, where 3 Velvet Scoters showed well, plus c70 Common Scoters and three more Little Auks flying past, plus a Short-eared Owl that came 'in off' and along the cliffs, attracting much attention from the local Herring Gulls and Carrion Crows. Welcome to England!

The kids did a bit of rockpooling while I seawatched, then it was time to head back west.

Two of the Velvet trio

Shorty, in off.

Arctic bullet, South Landing

Monday 21 October 2019

Stormy Sea

Quiet in the bushes at Flamborough today, despite a promising nor'easter, with only a brace of Bramblings to show for a loop of Old Fall. Hot news from the sea tempted me to get seawatching, so I headed round to the hide. I had missed the bird of the day, a White-billed Diver which decided to fly past while I was driving through Flamborough village. Also, missed a dawn Sabine's Gull, but did get to see a Septuagenarian flossing in front of the hide (no, really!), along with eight Little Auks, a Grey Phalarope, two Long-tailed and two Pomarine Skuas, three Arctic Skuas, several Bonxies, six Manx Shearwaters, several Arctic Terns, c500 Kittiwakes, five Puffins, Great Northern Diver, six Eider etc. Pretty fantastic to be honest. My skua ID was particularly ropey at first; I definitely need more seawatching practise! Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, a superb Euro Storm Petrel which showed for a good few minutes as it fluttered north, plunging over the swell and cruising between epic waves. I managed a bit of phonescoped video - apologies for the shake, it was on full zoom!

Two screengrabs, the upper one showing the diagnostic underwing bar.


Long-tailed Skua

Sunday 13 October 2019

An American in Yorkshire

Red-eyed Vireo is one of the more regular American landbirds to rock up in Britain (144 accepted records to date), but it is also one of the coolest, like a giant Firecrest. Even it's name sounds cool: Red-eyed Vireo. Class. I have been lucky enough to see two in Britain, both back in 1995 on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.

Red-eyed Vireo, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, October 1995. Not sure who took the photo, but not me!

Described by Richard Millington in his classic 'A Twitcher's Diary', as a 'hyperzonky megacrippler', REVs don't look like anything native to our isles. They are absolutely corking, with bright green upperparts contrasting nicely with silky white underparts, and yellow undertail. The head is large and broad, with a blue-grey crown, massive white supercilium offset with neat black edging and a stout, hooked bill. Cool or what? The red eye is only seen on adults, and most of the birds that rock up are juveniles, sporting brown eyes.

It has been a great autumn so far for REVs, with many turning up mainly in Ireland and the southwest of England. Yesterday, to my astonishment, a bird was found on Vicars Lane, Easington, a road already etched into birding history books as the site of the 2016 Siberian Accentor. Typically, when the news broke, I was hundreds of miles away in Buckinghamshire at a family event and had no chance of getting to Easington during daylight. A tense night followed...

As forecast, it was raining before dawn and it got worse as I headed to Hull, and out east towards Easington. Shortly before I arrived, the news I had been hoping for came through, that the REV was still present along Vicars Lane. Fab. About 30 rather soggy looking birders were along the lane and many of them had just seen the vireo. Great. Over the next hour, I saw the bird in flight a couple of times but my anxiety rose as my clothes became drenched. It seemed to be returning to a bush with small black berries on every so often and between times moving along the bigger trees next to the lane. I grilled the trees intently, picking up Pied Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler and Brambling, along with a couple of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. Great, but no cigar. I returned to the group gathered near the berry bush and immediately saw a movement - there it was!! - sitting unconcernedly in the middle of the bush casually picking off berries. Class! After watching it for half a minute, I decided to get a record shot for the blog and it annoyingly hopped slightly, so I only managed a pic of it's American rear-end! You can see the lemony undertail, suggesting a juvenile bird, as would be expected. The bird flew off back into the taller trees leaving the small gathering of birders beaming with delight.

Red-eyed Vireo, Easington 13th October 2019. Honest! This is the second record for Yorkshire, the first being at Kilnsea on 30th September 1990.


Lee Johnson's excellent pics of the REV. Stonking!      © @LeeLj337

After my American encounter I pondered what to do. Redwings were dropping in out of the sky, which made me think of finding some birds. I hooked up with Tony Martin and Mark Dobson and we walked Spurn Point.

The weather was dreadful and we got soaked. Two or three Ring Ouzels, a probable Yellow-brow, a Peregrine, Marsh Harrier in off the sea and a few common migrants were all we had to show for a long, very wet walk. Fortune favours the brave? Well, sadly not today!

Tony and Mark decided to head home to dry off, so I thought I'd cheer myself up with another look at the vireo. My luck seemed to be in and the bird flew back into the Sycamore above the berry bush a few minutes after I'd arrived and then dropped into the bush. After scoffing a couple of berries, it flicked back across the road and showed well up in the Willows next to the lane for ten minutes or so. Just as a I remembered the Scilly birds, it was quite sluggish when feeding, but would suddenly move quickly, hopping along thick branches and then zipped up into the Sycamore leaves. Hyperzonky megacrippler? Absolutely!

On arriving back in York, I found out a Great Snipe had been found on Beacon Lane. Oh well, we tried! Thankfully I did see Spurn's last GS, the rediculously tame bird, back in 2013.

Levenwick Daurian Shrike

29th September 2019
After heading south from Unst, we dropped in at Levenwick north of Shetland. A Turkestan Shrike had been reported but had apparently nailed and scoffed a Chiffchaff mid-morning and after heading into a thick bush, perhaps for a post-breakfast nap, it hadn't been seen again. We got a tip from a local birder about the garden it had been last seen in and then laser-eyes Rich spotted a shrike-like flash and sure enough, there was the little dude, sitting in a Sycamore in the very same garden. The bird showed well hunting dessert, in the form of bumblebees in the garden and from the nearby fence.

After a bit of research, it seems this bird was a male Daurian Shrike, with grey above the black bandit mask, not white, and a narrow mask, which didn't meet over the bill. Furthermore, the bill had a large amount of pale on the base. Recently, Isabelline Shrike was split into the two recognisable forms, Daurian and Turkestan Shrike. There are other subspecies and it remains to be seen whether it is decided that they are suitably distinct to be classed as good species.

Isabelline Shrike has a place close to my heart as this was the first proper rarity I was involved in finding and identifying (together with my Mum and Dad and Dunc Poyser), at Zennor Head, Cornwall in October 1989. That bird was the first mainland record for Cornwall and blew my 14 year old mind!

Post script.
1st November. Apparently, DNA analysis of a pellet regurgitated by this Shrike has shown it was a Turkestan after all! Back to the drawing board. ...

Sunday 6 October 2019

York Birding Club Trip 6th October: Wet day at the Cape

It dawned lashing down and blowing strongly from the southeast. Not the finest weather for birding, but the wind was in a favourable direction at least and the forecast looked better for the afternoon. Nevertheless, most of York Birding's finest dropped out of the club trip leaving myself, Peter, Neil and Noel to brave the flooded A166 and head east to the Great White Cape of Flamborough Head.

We headed first to the seawatching hide - the weather was so bad, it was raining into the hide! - but we were glad of the excellent shelter, which enabled us to enjoy a blink (short seawatch) during which a couple of hundred Wigeon, c30 Teal, 2 Brents, Velvet Scoter, several Common Scoters and Red-throated Divers went past, plus the incredible sight of Robins, Skylarks and Redwings making landfall after what must have been a truly awful crossing of the North Sea. A Weasel hunted the clifftop, presumably seeking a migrant for breakfast.

Towards 10am, the arrival of more landbirds encouraged us to brave the vile weather and try a walk down to Old Fall. This proved to be really special, with literally hundreds of Redwings feeding in the hedge and in the stubble field, along with dozens of grey Song Thrushes, a couple of Ring Ouzels and a few Blackies. Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests accompanied our walk down the hedge, and grey Robins flicked in and out of the bushes. A fire-tailed Redstart enlivened proceedings, but melted away rapidly. At the plantation, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers called from the Sycamores but were invisible among the swirling, thrashing branches. A Woodcock exploded from near the pond, shooting off through the trees.

Next up, we headed for South Landing after scoffing a pie generously provided by Noel. Nothing much new here, although two or three Yellow-brows were heard and a Swallow was hawking for insects in the lee of Highcliffe Manor. A Peregrine had a kill in the field near Booted Gully, and was calling in annoyance as it was pestered by the local Carrion Crows. The rain had eased at last and early afternoon we headed for the north side of the head, where a stop in Thornwick Pool Hide revealed a fabulous bouncing Jack Snipe, a single Dunlin and a dozen Teal. We headed round a loop of Thornwick, with plenty of thrushes still coming in, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, two more Swallows and a Pied Flycatcher in Holmes Gut.

 Jack Snipe getting it's bounce on.

News came through of a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Old Fall, maybe fresh in, or perhaps we just overlooked it in the spectacularly bad conditions earlier! We walked down in the comparatively clement weather and after a short wait, were delighted to see that the RB Fly was a fine male, sporting a lovely peachy throat patch and grey head. The bird performed very well approaching within a few metres low to the ground and giving it's distinctive clicking rattle. It was completely unconcerned by our presence and despite the really gloomy late afternoon light, I got a couple of photos. Whilst watching, a Reed Warbler appeared momentarily, offering a bit of Blyth's-esque banana pose, but it was super gingery, with buffy underparts and just a standard Reed (sadly). Nice to see however, with the Unst Blyth's still fresh in my memory. A few Bramblings wheezed overhead and with the RB Fly still rattling in the Sycamores, we decided to head or home.

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Old Fall

Saturday 5 October 2019

Unst 2019 #3: Siberian Lesser Whitethroat

We saw several presumed Siberian Lesser Whitethroats (Sylvia curruca blythi) on Unst during the week, including one or two around our 'patch' in Norwick, plus a couple more in the village nearby. The birds frequented thistle patches, nettle beds and other ground-vegetation, only moving into the shrubs and trees when flushed. Generally, the birds were approachable and could be very showy. The nape was brown, being the most obvious feature, plus the white outer web on the outer tail feather (T6) was relatively easy to see with prolonged views. I didn't hear any of the birds call. This bird was phonescoped as it hunted moths in the grass at Valyie.