Monday 30 March 2020

Step up for Steppe Eagles!

Tomorrow would have been the Champions of the Flyway race day 2020. Sadly, Coronavirus has stopped this year's race, but I hope you will join the #FlywayFamily and celebrate our migrant birds wherever you are. Let's show solidarity to the cause bird from lockdown, or on your daily exercise walk  and tweet #COTF20. More about the day can be read on Mark Pearson's blog.

You can read more about this year's cause, stopping the catastrophic decline of Steppe Eagles, on the Champions of the Flyway website.

Meanwhile, two years ago, I was part of the Zeiss Yorkshire Terriers that won the Guardians of the Flyway trophy for most funds raised. It was an epic day, with some epic birds, including my first ever Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Rufous Bush-chat. Absolutely amazing!

Saturday 28 March 2020

Birding in Lockdown - Week One - keep it local folks!

Birding is now focussed on my small, mid-urban estate garden and one short daily walk along the River Ouse south of Bishopthorpe. This is still enough to lift the spirits, with the dry, sunny spring weather a joy.

Most of the time, birding is out of my back window and I am building up quite a good picture of the local garden regulars. Despite the territorial activity going on, at least three male Blackbirds are visiting regularly. Perhaps we are on the boundary of three adjoining territories? One female who I have nicknamed Ouzel, has a smart white throat patch. She is busy collecting nest material non-stop. I am not sure where her nest is as yet. Another more standard female comes regularly, but I've not seen her gathering anything. More interesting records during the week have been a male Greenfinch with a white head, two flyover Grey Herons and a Tree Sparrow.

 Greenfinch and Tree Sparrow

On my dog walk, I am checking a short stretch of the River Ouse and a flooded field at Church Ings SSSI. The water is rapidly receding due to the long spell of dry weather but it is still pulling in a few ducks, including (max counts in brackets) Gadwall (4), Teal (9), Wigeon (2), Shelduck (2), Pintail (1), along with a couple of pairs of Oystercatchers, Curlew and up to two Little Egrets, the first I have seen around here.

Today (28th), along with the female Pintail, there were four spanking Graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a couple of Herring Gulls, presumably pausing on their way north, due to the fresh (and nippy!) northerly wind. With lots of mud, I think there is a great chance of a Little Ringed Plover or, if I dare to dream, an Avocet, in coming days....!

Church Ings SSSI

We will get through this!

Hasta luego Wheldrake

Another beautiful evening walk at Wheldrake Ings. We are 'social distancing' now and this is the best place for it; I had the place to myself.

At least 195 Black-tailed Godwits were still on the refuge busy feeding, 'wickering' away noisily as they fed in small groups. Many are looking stunning in brick red colours, whilst some still sport silver and white winter finery. They will feed up and head north soon.

I felt a rising melancholy as I absorbed the atmosphere of early spring on the ings. I am not sure when I will be able to return, due to the imminent lockdown as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.

An hour or so after I returned, our Government announced we are now in lockdown. No more Wheldrake Ings for at least three weeks, most likely more. Stay at home and stay safe folks.

Iceland calling

An evening walk at Wheldrake Ings on 20th March, before lockdown occurred, lifted the spirits. No signs of yesterday's Garganey. Good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits were still feeding or roosting on the refuge together with six vocal Whooper Swans. Both of these species are heading for Iceland where they will breed. My first four Sand Martins hunted flies in the lee of the willows round the pool. As I walked back in the gathering dusk, the Whoopers flew past me, heading on north. Iceland is calling them home.

Friday 20 March 2020

Nature Cure

Troubling times we find ourselves in. My escape, nature, is always there for me and today was no exception. It gave me width to reflect; not just on the Coronavirus chaos, but on my lovely colleague Don Vine, who suddenly died this week. A massive tragedy. He will be greatly missed by a huge number of people. I remember dancing with him in the wee hours to The Clash in some grimy nightclub in Leeds a couple of years ago. We talked endlessly that night and some since, about great and lousy bands we'd both seen over the years. Another big love was rivers and wetlands. He would have liked the walk I had down the Derwent at Wheldrake Ings. Bye Don.

Wheldrake Ings had spring coursing through it's veins. A trio of dapper Garganey ventured out briefly from the reedy edge of Swantail Ings. The male stopping long enough to be phonescoped. Over 100 Black-tailed Godwits were sleeping on the refuge, a good number for here. Overhead three groups of Fieldfares headed into the east wind, Scandinavia-bound. Our winter has been kind on them this year.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Alpine Pipit Encounters

Neil Cooper found three Water Pipits at Thornton Ings just north of Melbourne on Friday, so I headed out first thing yesterday morning for a squizz.

Duncan Bye was present on arrival and after a bit, I picked up a Water Pipit feeding in a muddy grass field to the north. We walked round for a closer look and discovered all three birds were still present. It was interesting to compare the trio which were all in different stages of moult. Water Pipits moult their head and body (and a few other) feathers at this time of year, acquiring their distinctive summer plumage. This is what they look like when they finish their moult!

One bird was quite advanced, with only a few remaining streaks on the underparts, but otherwise, showing off a grey head, a contrasting brown mantle, striking white supercilium (eyebrow), peachy underparts, detailed with two white wingbars and tertial edges. With the gusty wind, the white outertail feathers were occasionally displayed as the bird spread it's tail to maintain balance.

The contrast between brown mantle and grey head and nape along with the warm brown rump and white outer tail ruled out Scandinavian Rock Pipit which is also possible at this time of year, as both species are passing through on their way back to their breeding grounds. But these guys were Water Pipits, on route to the Alpine regions of Europe. Class.

Another bird was still pretty much in winter plumage; a plain brown and white pipit, with similar striking white 'super' and wingbars, and diagnostically, the warm brown rump, eliminating Scandinavian Rock Pipit. The third was somewhere in between the other two! Really good birds, and a great find in the York area. Also present, a small herd of Whooper Swans, a Dunlin and plenty of Lapwings.

Today was Sunday 15th March, and with brighter conditions, I wanted another look, so headed back to Thornton Ings. To my dismay some prats were busy shooting stuff from the other end of the field, so the floods and field were comparatively devoid of birds. Nevertheless, two of the three Water Pipits were still present and a bit closer than yesterday- sensibly keeping their distance from the guns. One was the bird in winter plumage and one was the summer-plumaged individual. Craig had seen three here this morning and two on the adjacent Seavy Carr, so clearly a little movement going on through the York area.

 Water Pipit - well on the way to acquiring it's dapper summer plumage.

 Winter-plumage Water Pipit. Note the plain (unstreaked) brown mantle.

Above two videos, the summer plumage Water Pipit- the grey nape and brown mantle look almost Fieldfare-like occasionally.

 Winter plumage Water Pipit.

After my Alpine Pipit Encounter, I headed down to Aughton (45 Pochards, two Goldeneyes) and then Bubwith and North Duffield Carrs (Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl, c150 Whooper Swans), with the highlight being a nice Rainbow over Bubwith Bridge. A Chiffchaff was singing by the Geoff Smith Hide and Curlews were bubbling over the flooded ings that was bathed in spring sunshine. Gorgeous!

Monday 2 March 2020

Osprey Nest To Let!

Today we created a bit of prime real estate for Ospreys and Barn Owls at Bolton-on-Swale Lake.
A bit speculative, but you never know, we might just attract a pair of Ospreys following the Swale north. Top work by Dave building the nest in his shed, and then Coxon Brothers for erecting the pole.

Sunday 1 March 2020

Wykeham Goshawks

Due to the incessant stormy weather, February weekends have been a bit of a write-off in terms of looking for Goshawks up at Wykeham. Today was forecast to be very windy - it was - and reasonably clear - it wasn't! I had a look at Castle Howard which was quiet, apart from a few Mandarin and a solitary drake Goosander.

Mandarin and Mallards, Castle Howard Great Lake.

I pressed on to Wykeham, noting a nice flock of c60 Bramblings near Snainton. I stood for an hour at my first spot and saw two Buzzards and a male Sparrowhawk, along with a few flyover Crossbills and Siskins. I heard a Gos calling unseen in the forest, but that was the nearest I got. Maybe the weather was just too grim for Goshawks. On to my second spot, where I had a brief view of an adult male Gos, gliding across the pine canopy, before dropping in to the forest and out of sight. Despite my layers (though lacking a woolly hat - big mistake), I was beginning to get nithered. I should have gone to the watchpoint as I would have been more sheltered! Live and learn...

At my third stop I was forced to hide in the car out of a horizontal icy shower that flowed down the valley like a liquid glacier straight into my face. Whilst sheltering, I noticed a big female Gos sitting in a spruce opposite where I had parked. I jumped out into the galeforce southwesterly and attempted to phonescope her majesty, as she surveyed her realm. Always spectacular, always impressive, the Wykeham Goshawks never fail to take my breath away, no matter how many times I see them.

Leap Day Larids

29th February 2020 - Wheldrake Ings

Wheldrake Ings is very flooded! Donning the chest waders, I paddled into the flood at the bottom of the lane, only to discover the right boot had a leak, so my foot was soon bathed in icy river water. Great. Not a problem, I was carrying my wellies and spare socks, so stumbling on to the bridge, I changed foot attire and warmed my numb toes.

 Wheldrake Lake

The ings looked like a lake, holding a huge quantity of floodwater. A few grassy strips were crowded with Curlews and Wigeon, with ten Black-tailed Godwits and a pair of Pintails on another. In the distance, the gulls were gathering, so I sploshed on. A large stretch of the track was in active flood, with water flowing freely across on to the meadow. After a bit, and with wet jeans, I arrived at Tower Hide.

 The riverside track, looking not too unlike the River Derwent to it's right!

Black-tailed Godwits with Pintails.

The gulls were pouring in, but sadly onto Swantail Ings, so in the strong wind, were quite tricky at the distance. Nevertheless, a fine first-winter Iceland Gull dropped in after a bit of a fly around.

Above: Iceland Gull. Note the pale bill with black sub-terminal band and pale tip, unlike the later bird.

After a while, the pale ghost headed off down the valley with other large gulls. Next up, a fine first-winter Caspian Gull appeared in the roost. After watching it from afar it took off and to my delight, settled much closer.

Above: First-winter Caspian Gull

Shortly, an adult Mediterranean Gull dropped in with the distant flock on Swantail - see below.

Adam joined me in the hide. I picked up two further Med Gulls; an adult with a full black hood - see below, and a third bird with half a hood, somewhere between the two others. The Iceland Gull reappeared, this time much closer. It wasn't until sorting my videos that I realised that this was a different bird, with a much darker bill and more coarsely-marked plumage. A possible third-winter Yellow-legged Gull appeared, though refused to reveal it's wings. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls, including a displaying pair, hinted at spring as did the distant bubbling songs of Curlews drifting across from the Low Grounds.

I did a headcount of large gulls: 205 Great Black-backed Gulls, 420 Herring Gulls. I also estimated 5,000 Common Gulls and about 10,000 Black-headed Gulls. Six Pochards and c100 Pintails were the only other birds of note. We paddled back through the floods, giving my right foot another icy dousing, but headed home very happy with our Leap Day gull haul.

Below: Med Gull #2, with full black hood. An interesting-looking first-winter gull floats past at the front, hinting at Bonaparte's, with a nice grey shawl, small dark bill...shame I didn't notice that in the field!

Above: Second first-winter Iceland Gull

This dark-mantled gull could be a third-winter Yellow-legged Gull, albeit a small one, perhaps a female. I didn't manage to see the spread upperwing, so didn't manage to clinch it.