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.


Unst 2019 #2: The bird that was found three times

Friday 27th September.

It was one of those days of near misses. We'd tried hard in our usual spots around northeast Unst and found very little. A fly-by wagtail near the Balta Light bar called just like a Citrine, but without ground views we couldn't rule out a (much rarer) Eastern Yellow Wag. To our dismay, the bird disappeared into the distance. We tried to relocate it at Haroldswick but drew a blank, although a Jack Snipe was enjoyable as it flew around the area. Earlier, the lads had had a ticking bunting fly over at Norwick which didn't stop either. Sometimes the birding gods are against you...We headed down to Baltasound and popped into the walled garden behind the Health Centre.

 Just outside the walled garden

This spot had a great vibe about it and to our delight as soon as we walked through the gate, Mark picked up a large warbler in one of the Sycamores. It moved quickly into thicker cover, but I managed to get on it as it made it's way along the wall top. It had long undertail coverts- an 'Acro' (Acrocephalus warbler eg Reed, Marsh etc) and was holding it's tail slightly cocked and wings drooped. This looked good for Blyth's Reed!

At that moment, another birder came into the garden - Allan Conlin - who said he had been watching the bird for a couple of hours prior to our arrival and had left to put the news out as he didn't have signal in the garden! Allan thought it was a Blyth's Reed Warbler -confirming our hunch. He was, however, a bit concerned by the number of primary tips that were visible. There should be six or seven, but on his excellent photo (see below) you can clearly see eight and they seemed a bit pale-tipped -hinting at Marsh Warbler. The bird's banana-shaped jizz (tail up, short wings drooped), overall colouration, distinctly plain tertials (without obvious dark centres), short primary projection, the short supercilium, long bill and lack of yellow feet clearly pointed to Blyth's Reed however. We puzzled over the Marsh-like pale tips and scrutinised the pictures while we kept several eyes on the bushes for another view. Allan had also heard the bird's distinctive 'tak' call.

Allan Conley's excellent pic of the Health Centre Blyth's Reed Warbler

Then, Brydon Thomason rocked up and said he'd had the bird yesterday but hadn't had time to pin it down. So, the bird had been found independently three times! Scenes.

Shortly, the bird popped up on the boundary wall and showed fantastically up in a bare bush, before flicking on to another wall where Mark managed a record shot. It then dropped into the nettles and vanished, leaving us to celebrate the clinching views. Back in the garden, a Red-breasted Flycatcher was much more showy, zipping around in the low branches of the Sycamores, occasionally alighting on the grass. A couple of Bramblings and Yellow-browed Warblers were also kicking about.

Brambling, top, with Darren getting his RB Fly on in the garden.

Red-breasted Flycatcher.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Unst 2019: The Yorkshire Terriers Go North! #1

The Yorkshire Terrier dog pack reconvened to hit the north, with a week on Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland Isles.

Unst is remote. Really remote. It is 476 miles door to door from York as the Rubythroat flies, substantially further than the Isles of Scilly, or Paris. Bergen, Norway, is not much further away. The journey took a long time and involved three car journeys, two ferry crossings and a flight. The latter was pretty nerve-wracking, as the pilot landed the aircraft on his second attempt at Sumburgh Airport, Shetland, in virtually zero visibility, the island being completely fogbound. On our first attempt, a young Gannet had to take evasive action as we dropped out of the fog over the sea. Absolute scenes!

Our birding got off to a good start with a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a Terrier-found Wryneck in the pines behind the Setters housing estate at Baltasound. Off we go!

We arrived in Norwick at the northeast corner of Unst, after dark, but here is a pic of our bungalow (the white place on the right) which would be home for the next week.

Siberian Lesser Whitethroat which resided on our Norwick patch all week, and one of four or five seen on the island

Over the next week or so, I will post a few blogs about some of the highlights of birding this remote corner of Britain.