Sunday 28 April 2019

Immense Swift!

Sometimes things work out perfectly. Not often, but sometimes. Today was one of those days.

I spent the morning immersed in the marine environment, learning all things cetacean, as part of a course run by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Living Seas Team and Seawatch Foundation. The course is aiming to inspire people to get involved in a new project to monitor whales, dolphins and porpoises on the Yorkshire coast.

After a fascinating morning, I checked the Flamborough Whatsapp messages and was excited to hear that an Alpine Swift had been seen by Trevor Charlton just ten minutes earlier at Bempton Cliffs, but had disappeared, possibly over North Dykes. Being one of my favourite birds, this was pretty thrilling news and as we had broken for lunch, I thought the lighthouse must be worth a shot, in case the bird had followed the cliffs along the headland. Margaret Boyd (fellow Yorkshire Coast Nature guide) was keen to come with me, so we fired up the Kia and headed down to the lighthouse.

Parking up in a cloud of dust and tumbling nylon-clad tourists, we jumped out and I immediately saw a bird up over Bay Brambles, not much above our eye-line. Raising my bins, I was confronted by an immense swift! "There it is!", I exclaimed, as surprised myself as Margaret was by my sudden shout. I put a somewhat garbled message on the Whatsapp group to let other birders know it had reappeared. Random members of the public came over, wondering why I had got so excited, leaving disappointed when they heard that the source of our excitement was a bird...

The Alpine Swift circled round and then slowly made it's way north along the clifftop. We watched it through the scope and got glimpes of it's white belly patch and throat as it glided round. Awesome!! It disappeared over the brow towards North Landing. Amazing. A tick for Margaret and my first in Yorkshire in over 20 years! Strangely, my first Yorkshire bird was at Hornsea Mere in May 1997 and I have a feeling that might have been found by Trevor Charlton too...I will check. Craig Thomas arrived and after a few tense minutes, he picked the bird up high over the sea. It came in, slowly flapping straight towards us and spent the next ten minutes gliding round over the cliffs in front of us, against an angry looking sky. Craig got some amazing pics, despite the bad light:

Alpine Swift, Flamborough Head, by Craig Thomas

I attempted some phonescoping but it was too close really. I got some fairly dodgy handheld phone video as it cruised past:

 Handheld smartphone videos, complete with 'hilarious' commentary...

After some spectacular flypasts, accompanied by our 'oohs' and 'aaahs', it headed back around the cliffs and out of sight, leaving us euphoric. What an immense bird!!


We finished the course with a couple of hours seawatching in the brand new hide near the fog station. As it chucked it down, we were glad for the shelter. It really is a super building and the views are great. Big thanks and congratulations to Flamborough Bird Observatory for developing and delivering this project and Green Future Building for the excellent construction.

I picked up eight Manx Shearwaters heading south, two drake Common Scoters going north and a light northbound passage of Swallows, plus two Harbour Porpoises to get us back on track with our cetacean course!

The immense Alpine Swift was never seen again.

View from the new hide.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Little Drummer Boy

Apart from brief views of a female in Spain last year, I haven't seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker since the day my daughter was born, in April 2008. On that day, I chanced upon a pair displaying in a dead tree next to the car park of Hinchinbrook Hospital. New Dad duties called, however, and I had to walk away from these gorgeous birds. In my youth (dim, distant memories), I used to watch Lesser Spots frequently around York, in Askham Bog, Knavesmire Wood, the Palace Grounds in Bishopthorpe and at Wheldrake Ings. Sadly, this species is faring badly and there are few sightings in the York area these days. The decline is linked mainly to low productivity, but why that is the case is unclear, though could be linked to habitat change.

Yesterday, I was thrilled to be shown a drumming male Lesser Spot which flew in right on cue, to drum on a bark-less section of tree right in front of us. He continued for two minutes, before flying off to his next drumming spot. I heard him call just the once, a shrill falcon-esque 'kee-kee-kee...'.

After several minutes, he was back on his original spot, where he showed beautifully. His drumming was very distinctive, as you will see in the video, being longer and repeated very frequently, unlike Great Spotted. I hope this little drummer boy finds a mate and helps this great little bird remain part of Yorkshire's birdlife.

Also noted, one male Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming and one yaffling Green Woodpecker, completing the woodpecker hat-trick.

Friday 5 April 2019

Fiery Imps!

Recently, Craig Thomas saw and photographed a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins off Flamborough and his pics enabled folks at Aberdeen Uni to identify them as being part of the Moray Firth group. This is the first time these dolphins have been confirmed this far away from their home range. Fantastic stuff! To help out a colleague, I popped over to Flamborough yesterday lunchtime to do a piece for BBC Look North about the sighting and to promote Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's cetacean survey this summer.


After doing the interview down by the super new Seawatching Hide, I took the opportunity to walk down to Old Fall to see if I could see the reported Firecrest. The skies had cleared and the sun was beautiful and once out of the wind behind Old Fall hedge, it felt lovely and springlike. A couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests were feeding in the sunny lee of the hedge, but no Firecrest. A little further on, I thought I heard a Firecrest call, so I crept into the plantation and momentarily spotted a tiny bird in the dead weeds beneath the trees. The silvery white underparts contrasting with the vivid lime green upperparts immediately identified this fiery imp as it worked the stalks of last year's willowherb, seeking spiders and aphids.

In the sunlight, the Firecrest positively glowed; so different from the comparatively drab Goldcrests nearby. I watched this imp working the bare stems of Sycamore, carefully picking aphids from the green leaf buds. It zipped off and I refound it right up in the canopy of a Sycamore. The striking head pattern really shone out, giving the bird real character.

A little while later, the 'crest dropped down into a Bramble patch just inside the southern edge of the wood. It started calling repeatedly, alternating between a slightly nasal Goldcrest-like call to a more pure note and then a second bird popped up on the Brambles: another Firecrest! The two birds then worked through the tangle of briars, sometimes coming within a metre of me, giving lovely views. They were frequently hidden in the middle of the patch or on the ground beneath the Brambles, where only the occasional call betrayed their presence. Super birds!