Tuesday 29 December 2020

Quiet days


While all hell is breaking loose with the Covid pandemic, I enjoyed a couple of hours of near-solitude on the east side of the Lower Derwent Valley (LDV) this morning. The flood is rising, assisted by the frequent heavy showers. Out west there was a lot of snow over night, but it didn't reach the LDV, though it felt cold enough. Pretty quiet bird-wise, with a lingering White-fronted Goose at North Duff the best bird, plus three Corn Buntings by Aughton Church. A couple of Marsh Harriers knocking about and 34 Redshanks on the North Duff too.

Pics. Bubwith Bridge (top) and the approach to Ellerton Landing (bottom)

Monday 28 December 2020

Candy Floss and Chips

 The lure of candy floss and chips got the kids out of bed at a reasonable hour and we headed east to Filey, which, like York, is in  Covid 19 - Tier 2. We arrived under icy blue skies and literally skated down Arndale on to the beach. There was virtually no wind, but the air held a bitter bite and we kept moving to keep the kids and dog warm. A fine adult Mediterranean Gull loafing on the beach shone angel-like in the early morning sunshine and allowed close approach. Med Gulls know they look more attractive than Black-headeds; and their ubiquitous cousins like to stare at them, wishing their wingtips were so pure.


Good numbers of Purple Sandpipers were feeding along the Brigg, mixed in with Turnstones and a single Knot. A Great Northern Diver sailed majestically on the northside of the Brigg proper, and in the distance, two tiny white imps morphed into Grey Phalaropes as we approached along the slippery rocks.
Purple Sandpipers. They love hard rock. And a bit of seaweed.

 Tiny Grey Phalaropes. Tough as hell!



The heady delights of Scarbados temped us north and a little later we parked up on Marine Drive. A solitary Harbour Porpoise moved past casually, and nearby two gigantic reptilean Great Northern Divers, a sooty adult and a scaly first-winter, patrolled the murky harbour waters. GNDs are always fantastic. They have a certain calm air about them, doing everything in slow motion, slipping splashless under water as if it was silk; patiently scanning their surroundings and never causing much fuss. 

The scaled plumage of the first-winter. Tricky to phonescope as it was mostly too close!

Compare the darker, plain sooty older bird in the bottom video, with the scaly immature in the upper one.


After a bit of birding, I rewarded my patient kids with the promised candy floss and chips, the cornerstone of every healthy lunch.

The Third Day of Christmas

A morning in the LDV with my Dad and sister. Enjoyable birding, with six Barnacle Geese on the riverbank opposite Aughton church the pick, plus two Marsh Harriers, 25 Redshanks (good local winter count) at North Duffield, several Stonechats and an adult female Peregrine at Ellerton.

Six Barnacles - perhaps left over from the 85+ seen last weekend.

Male Stonechat, North Duffield. Plenty of these dudes around the valley currently after what was a great breeding season including a couple of pairs at least in the York area.

White Christmas (Eve)

 Heavy snow at Wheldrake this morning made birding challenging but very Christmassy. 250+ Pintails, c2000 Teal, 9 Pochards, a couple of Stonechats were the highlights.

Nothing says Christmas like two swans a'swimming in a blizzard!

Saturday 19 December 2020

Let It Come Down

After Sunday's excitement, today saw a return to normal. Two visits to the LDV, with a morning walk at the rapidly-flooding Wheldrake Ings, followed by brief visits to Thorganby and North Duffield Carrs. I then returned mid-afternoon to do the gull roost at Wheldrake. The flood water had risen considerably, but Tower Hide was still accessible; for now!

Highlights. A.M. Wheldrake - Black-tailed Godwit, Golden Plover (400+), Lapwing (400+), Pochard (4), Goldeneye (7), Curlew (7), Stonechat (2). NDC- Peregrine, Marsh Harrier, White-fronted Goose (2), Barnacle Goose (84), Pink-footed Goose (20+). 

P.M. Large roost of Common an Black-headed Gulls with just a handful of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Two leucistic Black-headed Gulls, one (see below) with completely white head, the other with normal winter BHG head pattern.

  White Black-headed Gull at the rear of the flock.

Sunday 13 December 2020

York's First Franklin's Gull

Saturday 12th December 2020

Just before my Dad turned up for his birthday cake and a cuppa yesterday afternoon, I saw that Ollie Metcalfe had struck York birding gold at North Duffield Carrs: an adult Franklin's Gull! Mega! There has been a Franklin's kicking about in West Yorkshire this autumn, so I was really hoping it would wander our way, but England is a big place for one small gull, so I didn't hold out much hope. Ollie had pulled it out of the bag, but views were only brief and it had disappeared rapidly. I was itching to get out to look for it, but instead had a lovely late afternoon with my family, sitting socially-distanced round a firepit in the back garden, scoffing cake that the Boy Leadley had baked. My plan was to get a day pass for Sunday, and search every field and bit of water in the LDV to try and relocate the gull. I didn't hold out much hope, in fact I didn't think it would ever be seen again in the York area, but you've got to try!

Sunday 13th December 2020

The alarm went at 6.30am and I blearily peered out of the window. into the darkness, but was relieved to see no rain! Great. Gear on, off to Wheldrake. The lane was starting to flood, but I would definitely be able to get on to the Ings to see what gulls were lingering. I paused to gawp transfixed at the eastern fire lighting the dawn sky. If I didn't see anything, this scene was worth the early start.

Off down the path I splashed, Tawny Owls hooting unseen in the trees across the Derwent. Tower hide loomed, an edifice silhouetted ominously against the blazing sky. This would be my familiar shelter, so I piled in. There were some gulls still present - great! It was pretty dark really, so it was impossible to sort through them, so I sat and enjoyed the sounds of the wor;d waking up. 

A Marsh Harrier had also woken early and was terrorising the Teal and Lapwings, looking for breakfast. As the scene brightened, a scan revealed no small dark-backed yank among the regular gulls. I decided it wasn't worth waiting at Wheldrake; there was a lot of valley to check and this Franklin's Gull wasn't going to find itself.


Ollie had said there were a lot of gulls feeding in fields between Riccall and Skipwith so I thought I'd work south down the valley to there and then on to North Duffield. If this didn't work, perhaps it would come into roost at Wheldrake later on. Duncan Bye arrived just as I was leaving - he said he'd stake out Wheldrake. 

Thorganby was next, so I parked up in the village hall car park and walked to the viewing platform. There was a fair bit of water on the ings and I could see plenty of gulls on the near flood and over towards Ellerton. I set up the scope and scanned the nearest birds. Nothing. A Little Owl called to the north. Nice. 

I scanned over towards Ellerton - there were a lot of gulls over there but really too far to do anything with. The nearest gulls took flight, so I scanned back through them. A glimpse of dark slate and a subliminal flash of contrasty black and white wingtips hit me in the face like a shovel, but then was gone. Was that it, surely!- but where was it - was it just a dark Common Gull and my eager mind tricking me? 

The flock settled; I scanned back through, nothing, nothing, more birds on the grass, nothing - and then Kapow! There! A black head, white forehead and black beak behind a metal field gate; the bird turned revealing those dark slate upperparts and big white scaps and tertial crescents - There you are, you little belter!! I couldn't believe it, the Franklin's Gull, right here. 

I phoned Duncan, no answer! Then the flock flew and landed on the water. Grabbed a photo, then bunged out the news. Duncan rang me back and headed over.

I put the news out and then settled down to enjoy the bird, praying it would not do a bunk before others arrived. On the water it was right out in the open - holy crap! It took off again but flew low towards me and landed on a grassy island where it settled down to a spot of preening, before tucking its head up and having a nap. Great, it looked settled. A long 20 minutes later and Duncan rocker up, closely followed by Tim Jones, Jack Ashton-Booth and Adam Firth - proper York twitch! 

The rain came in, driven by a bitter southeasterly straight into our faces and the lenses of our 'scopes and soaking us through. The adrenaline was like a heated blanket, but that began to wear off as the cold and wet seeped in. The gull seemed unimpressed with the weather too, and remained asleep. Probably best. More familiar faces arrived so I decided to head off, to create some room on the platform. 

What an absolutely mint bird and the icing on the cake for what has been a great year for York birding. 

To cool my jets, I headed down to North Duffield where I unwound watching winter waders wading about on the ings, before heading home for tea and high fives from the kids.

Post script. The rain came down hard in the afternoon, but we tried the roost at Wheldrake. c1000 small gulls came in, but no Franklin's. 

Friday 13 November 2020

Keep it local

Into another Coronavirus lockdown, I will stick to the local area for my birding exploits. Hopefully, we will get through this and we will all be able to spread our wings wider, come December. 

Whooper Swans graced Bank Island at the weekend, majestic in soft afternoon light, throwing some cool shapes with snaky necks. I wandered through mud to the hides at Wheldrake Ings, the yellowing Willow leaves shimmering like Aspen in the light wind. Pink-footed Geese yelped overhead in straggling skeins; a Cetti's Warbler exploded acoustically from the reedbed at Swantail whilst in the murk, a Marsh Harrier patrolled the browning grass; panicking Teal and Wigeon as he went. Fine scenes, close to home.

Sunday 1 November 2020

Fields of Gold

Had two sessions at Elvington looking through a flock of Golden Plovers today. Only a third of the flock of 750 was present and I failed to find anything interesting among them, although it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. As usual, a few dinky, grey or partially summer-plumaged individuals elevated my pulse briefly, but sadly all proved to be Euro Goldies on a closer look. A brief spell at Bank Island late morning yielded eleven Whooper Swans flying south, a stonking juvenile female Peregrine that came incredibly close to the hide and 52 Pintails, among a couple of hundred Wigeon and Teal. With lockdown #2 starting Thursday, not sure when I will be back.

 Many of the Pintails were still moulting, but there was one handsome drake among them. 

Saturday 31 October 2020

More of the same

An enjoyable couple of hours yesterday morning at Wheldrake Ings, revealed similar birds to the other day, although the Great Egret was elsewhere. Two Cetti's Warblers were present in the reedbed, one of which was singing frequently and showed well in at tree next to Swantail Hide. A Crossbill flew over, as did 30 Golden Plovers. Several Stonechats were still around; it is good to see this species bouncing back after the weather-related population crash a few years back. A bit of flooding on Bank Island has attracted some ducks, with several Pintails and Shovelers the pick.


Sunday 25 October 2020

Big white birds with yellow beaks

A Great Egret was showing well this morning at Wheldrake Ings. It appeared out of the reedbed at Swantail Lagoon, preened for a bit, then flapped over to the pool. Also present, Little Egret, a singing Cetti's Warbler, five Stonechats, Marsh Harrier, two Pintails, 50 Teal and 20 Fieldfares.

On to North Duffield Carrs where it was great to see some Whooper Swans, fresh in from Iceland. They were engaging in a 'balance on one foot' competition, which was fun to watch. Also, one Ruff, Peregrine and c200 Fieldfares.

Monday 19 October 2020

Johnny Brown's Shrike

Quick pre-work twitch to Johnny Brown's Common, South Kirkby in West Yorkshire to see a shrike that had been discovered yesterday. This was the same place I had seen an Iberian Chiffchaff last year! Identified as a Brown Shrike, some birders began to question this, thinking it could be one of the 'Isabelline' Shrike species. The bird showed well feeding from umbellifers along a ditch, catching wasps. The chosen spot was along a massive open field, so the 40 or so birders could easily space out and keep their social distance! 

A very smart bird, seemingly big headed and big billed, with a pot-belly and long narrow tail. The right hand side of the tail at least seemed to show a shorter outer tail feather (T6), which favours Brown Shrike, but I could not see the other side. From my video later it seemed it was missing a couple of outer feathers on the left hand side. The shrike appeared quite short-winged, with only five or six primary tips visible beyond the tertials, though this wasn't easy as the bird constantly drooped it's wings ('Isabelline' types should have six or seven visible tips).

Note the short T6. This is on the RHS of the bird as this view is of the underside of the tail as the bird twists away in flight.

 Primary projection compared to length of tertials.

Red lines showing primary tips. Green line showing length of T6 (visible) against tail tip.

There was no white patch at the base of the primaries, but faint pale tips to the primary coverts. The rump was orange, contrasting with a dull brown tail. The mask was black, with a light grey upper border, meeting over the bill. The large beak was pale horn/grey with a dark grey upperside and distal 20%. The culmen appeared quite curved. Underparts were off white with buff at the breast sides. 

The bird's generally bulky, big-headed nature, with short wings and a short T6 felt more like a Brown Shrike to me, but I will be interested to see what other birders with more experience think.


Here is a male 'Isabelline' Shrike from Shetland last September. The identification went back and forth on this bird (within the Isabelline complex), but it seems even DNA analysis could not confirm which species! Nevertheless, a gorgeous bird. Note the small black bill, white primary patch etc.

Sunday 18 October 2020

Whitley Bay Bluetail

It's always a good day when you see a Red-flanked Bluetail. This bird was just across the Tyne from Trow, but was a bit of a drive round. The first Bluetail I saw, back in 1995 was in Great Yarmouth Cemetery and the Whitley Bay bird had found the local cemetery to its liking too. I watched the bird flicking around the Sycamores lining the paths between the gravestones. Gorgeous as ever, sometimes sitting still high in the canopy for minutes on end before dashing around the branches after flies, like a Redstart or flycatcher. Perhaps a first winter female, its blue tail was rather dull but super-cute as always.

I have been determined to find my own Yorkshire Bluetail and this autumn would be a good bet, though with the wind going back westerly tonight, the door may be closing on another season...

Eye of the Taiga

The Taiga Flycatcher was showing brilliantly on arrival at Trow Quarry, South Shields at lunchtime. It was confiding, and occasionally heard to utter its dry rattling trill. Behaviour much as Red-breasted Flycatcher, but a much greyer, duller bird. The bill was jet black and the uppertail coverts jet black as expected. Also noted, two Stonechats and two Dunnocks.

Here is a pic of a Red-breasted Flycatcher from Bempton a couple of years ago for comparison:

Just round the corner, a hyperactive Pallas's Warbler fizzed about non-stop in a small bunch of Sycamores, Ash and Hawthorn. A real stripy sprite, Firecrest-green above, festooned with lemon yellow stripes and a pale yellow rump. Silky white underneath. Calling every now and again which helped locate it. Absolutely impossible to phonescope!


Skeins of Pink-footed Geese have passed over our house in the past 24 hours. Two large 'Vs' went east late afternoon yesterday and then about 150 went north-northwest over at 9am this morning. I rang my Dad and he picked them up going over Woodthorpe a few minutes later. A joyous sound!

Friday 16 October 2020

Welcome to the Pterodrome!: Madeira Trip Report September-October 2020 - Part Three - Mammals

Madeira is a great place for marine mammals. Whales and dolphins can be seen from the shore throughout the year and there is a thriving whale-watching industry. Deep water close to shore means there are regular sightings of some of the deep-divers, such as beaked whales and Sperm Whales. Several species are present year-round with others more seasonal, or passing by. We did pretty well although only had time for one actual whale-watching trip. During the week we recorded five species:

Bryde's Whale, Balaenoptera brydei

A mother and a calf swam east along the south shore past our balcony on 27th September whilst waiting for our Covid test results to come through!

Sperm Whale, Physeter macrocephalus

The distinctive bushy blow of this species was seen distantly from Port Moniz, to the east of Mole Island on 28th September. We were scanning over the top of the Cachalot restaurant at the time!

Short-finned Pilot Whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus

Several fantastic individuals were seen very close to the RIB off Funchal on 29th September including a couple of calves and a small pod were seen from the boat on the return journey from the Desertas on the 30th.

Short-finned Pilot Whales. The name refers to the pectoral fins which are shorter than their longer-finned cousins which live in more temperate waters. In a normal surface view they are identical. In the video below you can make this out on the mother.

Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncatus

A pod accompanied the Pilot Whales from the RIB on the 29th September.


Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Stenella frontalis

A large pod of c50 were seen to the south of Canicho on 27th September, many of which were very acrobatic. A pod approached the boat as we returned from the Desertas on the 30th and a couple of them rode the bough for a while.



Mediterranean Monk Seal, Monachus monachus

Madeira is also one of the few haunts of the rarest pinniped in the world, the Mediterranean Monk Seal. This large seal is thought to number only 700 individuals with a loss of habitat and direct persecution being largely to blame. The seals breed in small sea caves along rocky coasts these days and disturbance from tourism and development has resulted in the loss of many suitable sites. Persecution from fishermen has been a big problem over the years too. The remaining population is limited to about four locations, which is pretty tragic considering the original range. As Madeira is one of the main areas we asked people wherever we went if there were any recent sightings. Many locals had seen them, but stressed they were very rare and hadn't seen any recently. Our best chance seemed to be a trip to the Desertas Islands where they are known to breed. Conservation efforts on the islands have really helped the population start to recover but we really didn't expect to see one. 

At anchor close to Deserta Grande, one of the crew suddenly exclaimed that there was a Monk Seal on the surface off the stern. Try as we might - and Philip has incredibly good eyesight, we could not see it. After a while, we decided he must have been mistaken, but he was adamant...later on, the same guy said he could see it again and once another member of the group said they could see it, we got really excited. After a few tense minutes, there it was, lying low on the surface about 20m away. Incredible! In reality it just looked like a distant seal, but it is a colossal rarity so very exciting nevertheless. 

The seal then dived and seemingly disappeared. Wow! We had seen a Mediterranean Monk Seal! To our amazement, it surfaced much closer - no way! This time you could actually see the length of her (a female we think) and features of her head.

But she wasn't done there. She proceeded to swim straight towards us and down the side of the boat. Absolute scenes!

Thursday 15 October 2020

Back to the head


A day off work and a few hours at Flamborough Head before coming back for the school run. I parked at the Old Fall steps and walked towards the lighthouse. Incessant alarm calls from Goldcrests and Wrens alerted me to the presence of a predator in the front gardens of the lighthouse cottages; I carefully poked my head round a bush to come face to face with the angry amber eyes of a Long-eared Owl a few metres away! It turned - I got a dodgy photo - and it was off, flying over the houses and away south, chased by a local Carrion Crow. A great start. 

Long-eared Owl in the act of taking flight.

I spent a couple of hours looking round the lighthouse grassland in the hope of stumbling across yesterday's Olive-backed Pipit. Sadly, I didn't manage this, but did stumble across a lovely Little Bunting which flew up ticking into the brambles by the hedge. It seems to be the bird found by top bloke and artist Jonathan Pomroy yesterday. I got a quick bit of phonescoped video before it dropped back into the grass. A few minutes later it flew up to the top of the hedge.


Little Bunting. Always a delight!

A Lapland Bunting flew out to sea from Cattlemere calling, seemingly heading for Spurn in the distance. Redwings and a few Song Thrushes were dropping in and hiding in the hedges; some sought food in the ploughed field. 


Redwing and Song Thrush. Trans-North Sea migrants - scenes!

A Sparrowhawk nailed a tired female Blackcap so easily, it was pathetic. I was pleased the Sparrowhawk got a meal at least. A Woodcock flushed from near the sheep field and a Snipe came 'in off'. Old Fall was dripping with Goldcrests, hovering among the dying Sycamore leaves. An elusive Chiffchaff and a canopy feeding Robin increased my pulse rate briefly, before a message that the OBP had been seen saw me heading back round to the lighthouse area. The pipit had gone to ground again and we couldn't relocate. 

A little later, I met up with Rich Baines to kick around a quiet South Landing and then Old Fall again, but like the Little Bunting, the time was ticking away rapidly before I was due home to pick Sol up from school. A pipit appeared, providing a nice finale when it landed close by revealing itself as a Tree Pipit, not the hoped-for Olive-backed, but cracking nevertheless. It was rather confiding, edging furtively in the grass at the foot of the hedge (see pic at the top of this post) before skipping up onto a bough to pose for pics. Back west in time to pick up the Boy Leadley. Happy days!

Tree Pipit, Old Fall Hedge, looking furtive and rare.