Sunday 27 January 2019

My biggest twitch - the Kent Golden-winged Warbler, February 1989

In a fortnight, it will be thirty years since I saw the Golden-winged Warbler in Kent. Thirty years! Is it really that long? In all that time, there has not been another sighting of this stunning bird in the UK.

The event is the biggest twitch I have been on in terms of numbers of birders present, and possibly won't be surpassed. The bird was found by Paul Doherty, who is on the York Birding committee, so I have been fortunate to hear the story of this wondrous bird's discovery direct from Paul over a pint.  You can read it in BB here.

Back in those days, I got hold of bird news via the Birdline service which you could ring and hear a recorded message of the latest sightings from around the country. My Mum always used to go mad if she caught me ringing it, as it was a premium rate number and cost a fortune! One evening, I sneakily rang Birdline and was quite stunned to hear that a Golden-winged Warbler was present in Maidstone, Kent. I had no idea what a GWW was, but for that reason knew it must be dead rare, and I knew that Kent was the other end of the country. I didn't even know which part of the world it was from! I eventually found it in my old National Geographic Birds of North America book. This happened to me again a few years later, when the Mugimaki Flycatcher was reported from Stone Creek, near Hull, but that's another story...

As luck would have it, some birding friends from York offered me a lift down to see it the following Sunday, a kindness for which I am forever in their debt.

 What a bird!
The twitch. The sleepy suburb never knew what hit them! The story goes that some birders boarded the double-decker bus so they could see over the wall into the gardens where the bird was - class! We didn't need to bother - see below...

Reading back on my notes from that day all these years later and I can still recall the day really well. I think it is funny now after only a couple of hours we decided to go for a wander elsewhere - what were we thinking?! As it turned out, we saw the bird, my first American vagrant in the UK, so it worked out well, but it would have been a long ride home if we'd dipped!
Here is my write-up - aged 14:

“I was picked up by Barry Thomas, Joanne Thomas and Harry Hulse in Bishopthorpe at 4.40am. Barry had a big BMW - it felt very posh. It was certainly very comfy, I had a sleep! We arrived 238 miles later in Maidstone, Kent at 8.15. 

We waited at the top left corner of the Larkfield Tesco car park for two hours. Never saw it. Saw Siskin, Redpoll, Blue Tit, Bullfinch etc. c10am we walked off to a nearby nature reserve on the other side of the road to look for a reported Great Grey Shrike. On the way we saw a Waxwing. The reserve was quite big with overgrown gravel pits and surrounded by Hawthorn, Willow and Alder. Saw Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebe and Chiffchaff, along with Bullfinch, Fieldfare, Long-tailed Tit and others. Went back to the car park about 10.45. 

A large number of birders were standing in different parts of the car park (about 500 people) when suddenly somebody said they’d seen it in some part of the estate. We burned up the steps and ran about ¼ mile in to the housing estate. Nobody knew where to go, but just followed everybody else. After about an hour it hadn’t reappeared and the crowd more or less started dispersing. Suddenly somebody else had seen something which could have been it fly into some gardens. Again we ran but this time about 1/3 mile. After about half an hour we or no one else for that matter had seen it. We wandered back to the car for it was around midday and time for our packups (lunch). 

While sitting in the car some foreign twitchers (Dutch I think) came down the steps looking happy and punching the air. Joanne and I got out and asked them if they’d seen it. We ran and were followed by Barry and Harry and got to a bank where everyone was standing. On the other side of the road was a walled garden with a large clematis or ivy type plant where it had been seen. After a moment, it hopped up into a small bare Silver Birch and sat on a branch. It sat for about 30 seconds looking towards us. Everybody cheered! Then it turned around and faced the other way. Then it turned again and flew over our heads. When it was in the tree, it was out in the open - it was a beautiful bird. 

It was quickly located in another garden just below the level of the fence-top. It hopped on to a wall and then on to a fence and then flew into some ivy on the side wall of a house. Then it flew off. The whole viewing time was a couple of minutes. 

Then we went to Stodmarsh nature reserve. We spent from 2pm until 4.15pm there. After a bit, the Glossy Ibis was spotted high up. It was scoped easily. It rapidly spiraled down and into its roosting place, never to be seen again, at least until tomorrow. Two lifers in a day, can’t be bad. Chiffchaff, Hen Harrier and Waxwing can’t be bad either.”

Thanks to the photographers, for the pics in this post, which I have borrowed off the internet. The top one is by David Cottridge I think.

No Dogs

Wheldrake Ings is usually dog free, so the presence of three Yorkshire Terriers was unexpected! Sadly, Mr Woodhead was missing, presumed still showing in Scotland.


A few signs of spring, with Skylark singing, ducks busy displaying on the pool and an Oystercatcher on the flood. Two Peregrines causing chaos among the Lapwings and ducks, numbers of which were down greatly on last weekend, presumably due to the freeze last week.

Yesterday, I visited Castle Howard Lake early doors. No sign of the Red-necked Grebe that was still there on the 25th, but 25 Mandarin, 12 Goosanders and c35 Goldeneye.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Wheldrake Ings, Sunday 20th January 2019

Two visits to Wheldrake today, the first this morning with the family, followed by the roost this afternoon, on my own. Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese clearly on the move today, with a number of skeins of pinks heading over northwest, presumably Norfolk birds heading for Lancashire. c50 Whooper Swans on the refuge, plus another 14 on the main flood, made for a fine sight, with another eight coming in at dusk.

A distant first-winter Caspian Gull was the highlight of the roost which today included much larger numbers of large gulls than of late. Sadly, no white-wingers were in evidence. Two Peregrines caused chaos at dusk, with a blizzard of c20,000 gulls erupting off the water. As the cloud cleared, the temperature dropped and the mist rose rapidly across the ings. Walked back in the gathering gloom with Paz and Dunc.

Apologies for the quality, this was phonescoped at great distance!

Saturday 19 January 2019

First Snow

Out at dawn, to get a snip of birding in before Dad duties call.The first snow of the winter had fallen, and the slopes of the Howardian Hills had a light cover of white, as I made my way to Castle Howard Lake.

The first winter Red-necked Grebe was still present in the same spot I had seen it earlier in the month. Two drake Pochard were new, and about a dozen handsome Goosander were loafing on the water in the early morning light. Along the back edge among the tangled tree roots and fallen branches, the slightly surreal forms of Mandarin were present, 70 in all, perhaps a record count for the York area. The highest proportion, 58, were drakes, busy displaying in small groups, whilst the females looked on unimpressed from the bank.

 Drake Goosander. Has anything else got such a crazy headshape? Maybe a Storm Petrel.

Red-necked Grebe

Sunday 13 January 2019

Double Americano

This weekend was mostly about the 'Dad' and less about the 'Birding', as Vicky was in London, so I was in charge of the nippers.

On Vicky's return, my reward was to scoot down to Wheldrake Ings mid-afternoon (Sunday) to see what was going on in the valley. I popped into Bank Island, but not a lot was doing and I then got news that the drake American Wigeon had been relocated on the refuge at Wheldrake by Gary and Wendy Flakes.

Bank Island

I headed down there with Duncan, pausing to admire an incredible double rainbow right over the ings, which turned the floods inky black, a slick among golden grass.

The main meadow at Wheldrake Ings. Remarkably dry for the time of year.

Fairly soon, I picked up the familiar pale pepper grey head and shining green eye stripe of our target, the American Wigeon; a very smart Nearctic duck. He performed well, providing the best views of this individual I have had during the last few winters. He mainly stayed with a gang of unpaired drake Eurasian Wigeons that were displaying excitedly to an unpaired female. He did a cute little stand and wiggle to show off, but she didn't seem overly impressed.

Rainbows over the refuge, with Duncan Bye

Hordes of birds were flying around and several hundred Teal materialised. I mentioned that I had seen plenty of American Wigeons and Green-winged Teals here over the years, but never managed to see both in the same day. A few moments later and I realised one of the Teal facing me had two striking vertical white stripes on the edge of his breast and virtually no pale border to his green eye patch - Green-winged Teal! Unbelievable scenes! I was keen to get Duncan on the bird which was going to be very difficult given the large number of Teal milling about in a dense swarm. I opted to give him my scope, but that was a mistake as it moved out of view and he didn't get on it. We tried hard for the next hour to relocate the bird, but many of the Teal had swum or flown out of sight behind the long grass. This took the shine off my first Wheldrake Yank Duck Double somewhat, but the corking views of the AmWig made up for it.

We headed back up to Tower Hide to have a go at the gulls before dusk stole the light from us. Sadly, this was to no avail, although we got great views of the semi-resident male Peregrine which was not happy with the presence of a Buzzard, in fact he was livid for some reason. He repeatedly dive-bombed his adversary at incredible speed whilst loudly shouting his head off. I suspect if he had made contact with the Buzzard, that would have been game over for the larger bird.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Mega York Birding!

Following my op just before Christmas, I was under strict instructions to take it easy, so sadly had to duck out of this year's Mike Clegg Memorial Yorkshire Bird Race on Sunday (6th January). Fortunately, our team, Nevermind the Woodcocks were not to be deterred and recruited Paul Wheatley in to my place. This proved to be a good choice and the team did really well, hitting a marvellous 90 on the day. I was fortunate to be present at dusk on Wheldrake Ings bridge, which has become a tradition, as they secured their 90th species for the day. A Woodcock - perfect!

As for me, undeterred by the Doc's instructions, I had a full and very enjoyable day out birding. York has been going through a purple patch (bad timing seems as I've been laid up!) mainly thanks to Tim Jones who whilst reccying for the bird race has managed to find both Red-necked Grebe (York's 22nd but first since 2010) and Coue's Arctic Redpoll (York's third)! Superb stuff. Add to this the Dipper found at Newburgh by James Robson (first for years), the American Wigeon in the LDV and a range of decent winter birds, York is really the place to go birding currently.

I started a bit too early, arriving at Castle Howard in the pitch black at 7.30am. I was rather excited, having been somewhat caught up in Bird Race Fever, but also because there was a possibility of a York tick or too. Nature is meant to be good for your health and wellbeing, but this nervous excitement had stopped me sleeping the previous night!

Anyway, shortly after dawn, I was relieved to find the Red-necked Grebe still present and showing well on the flat calm lake. At what point it swam in amazingly close to the bank a few metres in front of me - I am not really sure why - and at that moment my mobile phone rang and it skittered off over the water showing off it's white wing patches nicely. Fortunately, it wasn't too disturbed and landed a little way out and loafed around unconcerned. A fab York tick and thanks Mr Jones for a great find.


On to Newburgh Priory and Coxwold, where I tried hard to find the Dipper but to no avail. Yes, I dipped the Dipper! I did manage to spy the odd mid-stream pebble with convincing Dipper poo on it, but I couldn't be sure it wasn't just Wagtail plop... The beck downstream of Coxwold looks great and I followed the footpath here a bit as it tracked the edge of the shallow beck. James Robson generously supplied me with some local gen but apart from a bonus Chiffchaff, I didn't manage to find any of his birds, including a Great Egret that was seen by Tim's Bird Race team earlier today. Thanks anyway James.

Poo on a rock. The nearest I got to a Dipper.
OK, well, one out of two is not a bad start and I wasn't really that optimistic about this bird.

Next up, Allerthorpe Common. I had arrived later than I had anticipated and there was no news on the Arctic Roll and the car park was full, so I squeezed on to a neaby verge. The wood was crawling with dog walkers and families and I wasn't feeling overly positive about my chances. Nevertheless, the sun had come out, birds were singing - Treecreeper, Robin, Wren - and I was birding! Bonus. I followed the southern edge of the wood down to the YWT reserve. The odd one or two Redpolls flew over calling, but the smoke pouring from a bonfire on the reserve didn't bode well at all: there was a volunteer workparty doing some conservation work. Not completely conducive for finding flighty finches! I scanned the large field to the south - an ex carrot field by the looks of it - and was amazed that it was crawling with birds. Fieldfares, Redwings and Song Thrushes hopped around searching for invertebrates, Yellowhammers and a few Corn and Reed Buntings were grubbing about and to my excitement, in the middle of the field were Redpolls! Switching quickly to my scope I started to scan the flock which was almost a moving carpet of birds. Soon, I picked out one, then two, three, up to ten Mealies, frosty brutes with plenty of white on the mantle, standing out from the small brown and buff Lesser Redpolls. And then I latched on to the Arctic! It stood out a mile, with a big plain white rump, plain lightly streaked grey head and lovely white underparts streaked on the sides of the breast. The undertail was white, but I could only see the sides from the angle of view, but the whole package fitted with my previous experience of this species. I couldn't quite believe my luck, York tick #2! I watched this little bird creeping around searching for seeds, and I attempted to get some phonescoped pics but was thwarted on each attempt, as no sooner had I lined things up, the bird moved out of view. And then quick as a flash, the flock erupted in a fizzing panic as a Sparrowhawk shot along the back of the field. The area cleared of birds, the Redpoll flock exploded skyards and then regrouped and headed over my head into the woods and disappeared, leaving a few lost looking Yellowhammers flying around nervously, with thrushes scattered to the nearby treetops. I waited in vain for the next 45 minutes but no Redpolls had returned, although I did see a single Brambling plus a few Siskins and a Jay (all good birds had I been doing the Bird Race!). I explained to arriving birders what had happened and a little while after I left the flock returned and they managed to see the Coue's. A second Double Decker on its way to you Tim!

I never expected to see a Coue's Arctic Redpoll in a carrot field, although my first way back in 1994 was feeding on Sea Lavender seeds on a saltmarsh!


Into the valley I went, head full of smiles, offsetting my post-op pain. I went straight down to North Duffield to look for the American Wigeon which was there yesterday. No luck, though great views of the regular immature Peregrine, a couple of Stonechats and a Marsh Harrier. Great to meet up with Steve Farley from Ark, plus a couple of the Bird Race teams: Young Upstarts and the Ex-chairman's choice. They were both having a great day.

Marsh Harrier. Almost unbelievably, an expected sight in the LDV these days.

I headed up to Bank Island and was delighted to find the wintering family (two adults and six juveniles) of White-fronted Geese on the water along with four Pink-footed Geese and a horde of Greylags.

Family White-front.

News came through of an Iceland Gull back at North Duff, so Steve kindly drove me back there for a look. Sadly, it had flown, but I did manage to pull an adult Lesser Black-back out just in time for the Young Upstarts who added it to their escalating Bird Race total. We went back to Wheldrake Ings and spent the remaining hour or so of daylight sorting through the hordes of small gulls, trying to find a Med or something rarer for the Bird Racers, to no avail. The semi-resident adult male Peregrine took out a Golden Plover with ease and descended to eat it on the far side of the flood. Three Goosander came into roost late on the flood and a Barn Owl was seen hunting, a fine end to special day birding the York area.


So the Young Upstarts beat 100 again, finishing on 101 - brilliant effort - well done Tim Jones, Jack Ashton-Booth and Adam Hutt. Nevermind the Woodcocks (Emanuela Buizzi, Rich Baines, Paul Brook, Paul Wheatley) finished on 90, as I mentioned, and the Ex-chairman's Pick (Peter Watson, Dunc Bye, Rob and Jane Chapman, Neil) finished on 89, a commendable effort. As for me, I totted up my list and made 86, which wasn't at all bad, considering I wasn't really trying and only went to five sites. One of my best day's birding in York ever? Definitely!

The Double Decker* Duo was presented to Tim Jones later for finding me two York ticks.

*This chocolatey tradition started with the Glossy Ibis found by Dunc Bye back in December 2017. I bought him a DD as a thank you for finding a York tick and the rest is history!