Wednesday 18 September 2019

Spoon-bearing Menace

I never quite understood why Pomarine Skuas are named after the covering of feathers over their nasal cavity, rather than the whopping great spoon-shaped twisted central tail feathers hanging out of their back end!

Poms are great birds, always a threatening presence, just as likely to kill a bird as steal it's food. This smart pale adult flew past us twice on Monday's boat trip giving us great views and we saw an intermediate phase adult later on. Always a highlight to see one of these spoon-bearing menaces!

This lovely sequence of shots was taken by Hugo Charlton-Jones on Monday's trip - thanks for sending them over Hugo! Note the heavy belly, full dark collar and double white wing flash on the underwing, a feature visible throughout the ages of Pom Skuas thus providing a great identification feature on tricky immatures. The flight of Poms is usually steady and direct, not quite as athletic and falcon-esque as the smaller, lighter Arctic Skua. For more shots of Pomarine Skuas, check out this bird from South Gare last year and these migrating flocks from South Uist a few years ago.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Get Lucky!

Sometimes you get lucky. Tonight was one example. I headed down to Wheldrake after tea for an hour and found that I had the site to myself...or so I thought. Two Greenshanks were showing on the Pool along with a few Moorhens but it seemed pretty quiet. After a stressful day at work, I welcomed the solitude, and enjoyed watching the Greenshanks feeding in the shallows. Then Craig walked in and told me he had just found two Spotted Crakes on the flash in front of Swantail Hide! He had some amazing shots on his DSLR. We headed round there and after a few minutes, one of the tiny little spotty dudes appeared, creeping along the edge of the water, flicking its pointy tail and showing off its buffy undertail. What a corker and the first I have ever seen at Wheldrake Ings, having heard several spring birds 'whipping' over the years. Spot Crake at Wheldrake. Fantastic!

This amazing flight shot was taken a couple of days later by Hugo Charlton-Jones - awesome!

Blue Planet Scenes!

Yesterday's Yorkshire Coast Nature Seabird and Whale trip was truly amazing and I was privileged to be the guide. We headed south from Staithes and located a feeding frenzy like something off BBC's the Blue Planet.

The gathered marine mammals and seabirds were feeding on a vast shoal of spawning Herring, creating an incredible wildlife spectacle. At least 50 Grey Seals were hanging out in a tight pack, creating a hubbub with their snorts and noisy breaths, the scent of distinctly fishy breath hanging in the air. Surrounding the seals, Minke Whales cruised, sometimes in pairs and threes, their glistening backs breaking the surface in slate grey arcs. Sometimes their heads broke the surface in the rising swell as they came up for breath. The whales' stinky cabbage exhalations added to the seal's pong, creating a true nose bombardment!

Gannets hurled themselves headlong into the melee, creating plumes of foam as their spear-like bodies flew like projectiles into the waves. Their staccato cries mingling with the noise of the seals and whales blowing. Great Skuas, several of them, white wing-flashes flashing, harried the Gannets for Herring and at one point pandemonium broke out as I yelled 'Pomarine Skua' and the excited clients leapt about to get a view of this fully-spooned adult Pom as it cruised overhead. A Sooty Shearwater, dusky voyager from the South Atlantic scythed through the throng, giving us a close fly past, flashing silvery underwings. This was memorable stuff and left us all awestruck, breathless and grinning in sheer joy. Nature is wonderful.

 Minke Whale. c9 miles off Robin Hood's Bay.

 Bonxie over the boat.

 Gannets bombarding the Herring (pic by Patrick Miller)

 A young Puffin, a 'Puffling' eyeing us with suspicion (pic by Patrick Miller)

 A stunning Sooty Shearwater carving past the boat (pic by Patrick Miller)

Full spoons! Adult Pomarine Skua heading past the boat (pic by Adrian Hotson), one of two seen during the day.

Epic Chiffchaff

Another superb day guiding a Yorkshire Coast Nature Seabird and Whale adventure today. Off Staithes at about 8 miles, this Chiffchaff circled the boat. It attempted to land on the cabin roof a couple of times but then headed off towards the towering Boulby Cliff in the distance. Considering this bird presumably left Europe last night, it has had an epic journey for such a tiny bird and to see it in the midst of Bonxies, Gannets and Minke Whales was incredible. Godspeed little dude!

Sunday 15 September 2019

Dow-twitchers and the Egret Hat-trick

Hosting Philip for the weekend, we decided to head for Fairburn Ings, where we knew the kids would have a great time and we would enjoy some good birding. A Long-billed Dowitcher had been discovered first thing which added to the allure.

A little later and we found ourselves heading up the track towards the coal stacks where the bird had been seen, stopping to admire Alder Beetles munching Alder leaves. This is a leaf beetle that has only recolonised Yorkshire and, indeed, the UK in the last decade or so. It is a smart, shiny blue dude, but totally mullers the Alder leaves. Nice.

Up at South Lagoon, we discovered a gang of about 30 birders looking for the dowitcher, which hadn't been seen since it flew about 8am. The gen was that it hadn't gone far, just out of sight. This is the first Fairburn record since 1981, so there was palpable tension in the air from the assembled crowd many of whom had been there for a couple of hours. After a bit, the kids were getting restless and Philip and me reckoned it had moved somewhere else - or at least, it was worth checking to see if it had. We headed round to the west side so we could look down on to Spoonbill Flash. If nothing else, perhaps the Cattle Egret would be showing. The first white bird I picked up - besides the ubiquitous Little Egrets, was an elegant Great Egret, stalking about, snake-necked in New Flash. At one point as I phonescoped, it trod in an unseen underwater hole, leading to a bit of a comical dance.

Great Egret falls in a hole

After watching the egret for a bit, I got into character, searching the muddy edges of Spoonbill Flash.

Spoonbill Flash with New Flash in the distance. 

To my surprise and delight, the first wader I picked up through the scope was the Long-billed Dowitcher. Philip didn't believe me until he looked through the scope! I guess sometimes it just pays to go and look elsewhere when a rarity isn't showing in the original spot.

I rang Mike who was among the crowd at South Lagoon and asked him to let everybody know. Ten minutes later and they all rocked up, seemingly very pleased it had been refound. Sol had a look through the scope. I then offered Addie a look, but Sol said "don't bother it's boring." Standard.

Long-billed Dowitcher getting it's freak on

We moved on round the coal stacks and after a bit we picked up the Cattle Egret to complete the egret hat-trick, the first time I have done that in Yorkshire. It was quite flighty and landed out of sight on the Moat, so I didn't manage a pic. Presumably the same adult I saw here on virtually the same date last year - see here - which was also the last time I saw a Long-billed Dowitcher. Weird coincidence!

Also noted were a couple of Green Woodpeckers again, one we missed on the Yorkshire Big Day.

Monday 9 September 2019

Crane by the skin of my teeth!

Mid-morning I was sitting in the seawatching hide at Flamborough and I got a message from Duncan Bye saying he'd just found a Crane on the Pool at Wheldrake. As the passage of seabirds was slowing, I decided to pack up and head back to York to see if I could see the bird. I have seen quite a few Cranes in the York area over the years, but never at Wheldrake Ings, so I was keen to see this. However, I needed to be home by 12.30pm and it was a long walk to the Pool; it would be touch and go, or rather, tick and run! I arranged with Duncan that if the Crane flew, he would call...

For the next hour and a half it seemed as if every tractor, lorry, horse-drawn-cart, milk float, cycling group, horse, caravan and ice cream van was also heading west along the York road. It was like an evacuation of the moderately paced. The journey was wracked with frustration and impatience - cars always bring out the worst in me - but I eventually made it into the Wheldrake car park, where I removed unwanted clothing layers and put on my trainers. Donning birding optics, I then began the long run to the Pool Hide...

The blazing sun was frazzling me, my scope clattering me about the head and the riverside track stretched on and on. I left several bemused Sunday strollers in the dust; they must have been wondering what an earth the rush was all about. Nevertheless, I soon got down to the Pool, panting and sweating profusely. Entering the hide and there, statuesque in the shallow water, stood the stately, majestic Crane.

Nearby, looking diminutive in this towering presence, were several Grey Herons and Little Egrets allowing great size comparison.

The Crane waded around in the shallows, did a few wing stretches, and fantastically, some evocative calls.  Two Greenshank fed in the water too.

After only a few minutes, the Crane took to the air, after a rather nimble run, did a few circuits of the Pool and then flapped leisurely away to the north. What a breathtaking bird and a real treat to see on the patch. And despite the tractors and lorries and the long run, I had made it, if only by the skin of my teeth!


Sunday 8 September 2019

Balearic Morning

After yesterday's Fea's Petrel off Hunmanby and Filey, I took a punt on it doing a big loop and coming up the Yorkshire coast again. Up (too) early, I headed east and was down at the shiny new Flamborough seawatching hide by 7.15am, joining Lee J and one other birder. The light was tough, but by 10am, I had seen c60 Manx Shearwaters, several Sooty Shearwaters, a close, deliciously dusky Balearic Shearwater (see video below), c12 Arctic Skuas, 10 Bonxies, 15 Red-throated Divers and plenty of Common Scoters and Teal. A Puffin flew north, a Greenshank went south calling and c200 Meadow Pipits were flying about. Harbour Porpoises were showing well, with some frisky breaching. I tried to do some phonescoping of the seabirds, just to practise in case one day that Fea's does come past....

Balearic Shearwater, Flamborough. Phonescoped.

Arctic Skua (pale phase adult) with Kittiwakes, Flamborough. Phonescoped.

Friday 6 September 2019

Whaling nation

As Japan tragically resumed commercial whaling this week, we, who know better, are in the midst of an exhilarating whale watching season and celebrating these brilliant animals.

 On Monday, we hosted Joe Shute from The Telegraph who put together a feature for said broadsheet covering how Minkes at least are responding to less persecution in our seas.

Monday 2 September 2019

Bonxie - off Staithes, North Yorkshire

Further pics of one of today's Bonxies...this adult (?black legs) appears to be moulting it's inner primaries, in similar form to the recent South Polar Skua off Ireland.


Stinky Minke!

Following a run of trips cancelled due to poor sea conditions, I was delighted that today's Yorkshire Coast Nature Seabird and Whale trip was going ahead. We had decided to cancel at the end of last week as the forecast looked bad, but over the weekend, it improved markedly and as I passed Sandsend this morning, the sea looked very promising. Game on!

Rich had had a couple of great tours last week, preceded by Mark's epic adventure when he recorded our first Cory's Shearwater (see here) plus the first Balearic Shearwater of the season. The Minke Whales had arrived in numbers, so, with a good sea, it was shaping up to be a great day. And so it proved!

Spotting a large wheeling flock of Gannets, we cruised over, about 2 miles out from Staithes Harbour and within minutes I picked up our first whale - which blew strongly several times! This is unusual for a Minke and for a while we were very hopeful this could be something bigger, but as with last year's possible Sei/Humpback/Fin, we never did pin it down. Presumably just a Minke behaving oddly. Within a few minutes we were surrounded by impressive Minke Whales, feeding around a spawning shoal of Herring. Mackerel were in on the act too, in turn attracting the Gannets. Manx Shearwaters joined the frenzy along with commoner Fulmars and Gannets. The smell of the Minke's exhaled breath, the 'blow' could be smelt on the wind - smelly cabbage! They really are Stinky Minkes! It was hard to know which way to look, as whales surfaced all around, sometimes right next to the boat.

Surfacing profile of a Minke Whale

We gave the whales some space and headed further out. Guided by Gannets once again, we soon encountered another feeding group of Minke Whales, this time about eight. The whales surfaced noisily around us, to the delight of all on board.

We carried on our search - Ian Boustead who was conducting the survey (as part of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust/Seawatch Foundation Yorkshire Cetacean project), totted up our whale count and stated we had seen at least 20 individuals. Brilliant!

Sometimes, they came right alongside!

The sea got up by lunchtime along with some rain and wind, so we headed inshore to look for Harbour Porpoises and birds. It was disappointingly quiet close to the cliffs, but our exhilaration and Sean's lemon drizzle cake kept us going. Things calmed down by 2pm, so we went back out to about five miles and saw a handful more Minkes and a few Bonxies including a close bird sitting on the sea. Time was getting on, so we headed in, covered in smiles and salty sea.

Bonxie or Great Skua.

Happy Days on All My Sons!

Sunday 1 September 2019

King of the Underwings

When I was a kid, like many birders, I leafed through the pages of my first field guide countless times, dreaming of the day I might clap eyes on such exotic wonders as Bee-eater or Hoopoe. These days, I still do this every time I get my hands on a new field guide, but with broadened horizons, those objects of wonder could be a dolphin, a plant or perhaps even a moth!

One such mythical beast which captured my eye and imagination, was the gloriously named Clifden Nonpareil, or Blue Underwing moth. With a name honouring the Cliveden estate in Berkshire where it was first found in the UK and a clear nod to it's unrivalled good looks, this large greyish-brown moth boasts satin-black hindwings bisected by a stripe of vivid cobalt blue and edged bright white. Blue is a very unusual colour in moths, making this species all the more intriguing. This striking pattern is reputedly flashed at would-be predators such as birds, in the manner of the various moths with coloured or boldly patterned 'underwings' in an attempt to frighten or confuse them. Whilst yellow underwings of various species are common inhabitants of my garden moth trap especially late in the summer, the majestic and un-equalled blue has never made an appearance and with only ten previous Yorkshire records, is unlikely to ever turn up in fact.

So, for one brief moment, the sight of a large greyish moth perched on my house wall close to my garden trap yesterday morning gave me a big rush of adrenaline - could it be the fabled Nonpareil? Of course I knew it wouldn't be, and getting closer I realised it was another cracker, the much more common Red Underwing. I have seen this lovely moth before, but never in my little garden, so this was quite a treat.

A little later, after Park Run with my old birder mate Dunc, I checked social media and discovered in a moment of serendipity, that Allan Rodda had caught a Clifden Nonpareil at Flamborough the night before! A few messages later and Allan had agreed to show me this wonderful creature later on. Fab!

So whilst many of my birder mates were driving southwest to twitch Britain's first Brown Booby, I cycled to York station and caught a train to Scarborough. A little later and with a cuppa in hand, Allan showed me the moth. And what an absolutely stunning moth it was, patterned pale grey and brown, with black arched lines, and highlighted by a pair of bright white spots in the middle of the forewings- and not to mention those hindwings! It allowed a glimpse of jet and shining blue, fringed white- dazzling stuff. It was huge, being about 50% larger than the Red Underwing, a real king of the underwings.

I took a few pics out in Allan's garden before it started warming up it's wing muscles. Allan wanted to take it back for release at Flamborough that evening and was worried it might fly off, so having had a good look at this beauty, Allan returned it to a quiet spot where it could rest.

Many thanks to Allan and his wife for their hospitality and generosity in sharing this wonderful find with me.

 Clifden Nonpareil, Scarborough, 31 August 2019, king of the underwings.