Tuesday 28 April 2020

Stereo Grasshopper Warblers

Some of our Hebs on South Pasture

Almost a year ago, Team Dirty Habicht strained our collective ears for the faint clicking reel of a Grasshopper Warbler in the scrubby grassland at Staveley YWT Nature Reserve. That was the final destination during our Yorkshire Big Day, where we managed to beat the previous record. Sadly, that evening we didn't hear a 'Gropper', nor a Water Rail, two species I knew should be present.

 Gropper from Bishopthorpe a couple of years ago.

Today, however, I had driven over to Staveley to help catch up the 99 Hebridean Sheep to give them a foot bath, to help protect against ailments like foot rot. Before we got started I had time for a little walk around and heard not one, but three Grasshopper Warblers! In the dragonfly pond area, I had two reeling simultaneously from either side of me - Groppers in stereo- one of which showed well sitting in a leafless bush for a minute or so, with another by the first hide, where a Cetti's Warbler sang its explosive song.

All in all, I recorded ten species of warbler during my short walk: Cetti's, Grasshopper, Reed, Sedge, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. Cool! Also noted were five noisy Common Terns and c100 Sand Martins feeding over the lagoons.

Two Groppers, giving it loads!

Cowslips were flowering across the reserve
Along with plenty of Red Campion.

Monday 27 April 2020

Lockdown Birding: All change

All change, weather-wise, with cloudy skies and rain overnight; the early dog walk by the river felt fresher. A few new migrants had arrived, with two Lesser Whitethroats rattling unseen in the depths of hedges, plus a confident Whitethroat songflighting from the top sprig of a Hawthorn. The Little Owl was in his usual Ash tree and delicate Cuckoo-flowers dappled the riverside grass. More rain is forecast from mid-week, which will bring relief to many.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Lockdown Birding: 'And it was all yellow...'

There can't be many more stonking spring migrants than a glowing Yellow Wagtail! It is bonkers to think this might have been picking insects off Hippo poo in West Africa only a few weeks ago, and now this individual is wagging about in a sheep pasture in North Yorkshire. For a bird that weighs less than one AA battery (no, really! 18g YW versus 21g AA battery) it's migratory feat is really impressive; it has travelled thousands of miles, faced various dangers and arrived here like a sunbeam to brighten up even the dullest of spring afternoons.

No sign of the Bolton Percy Ring Ouzel this afternoon, nor any Wheatears at Colton, but enjoyed my cycle round the local area. A couple of pairs of Grey Partridges were noted, along with four Corn Buntings near Acaster Church and 30 Fieldfares in the large Ash on Church Ings.  Saw some Yellow Archangel flowering on a verge in the Bluebell Wood.

Lockdown Birding: Dawn on the heath

 When the Gorse flowers, it's kissing season! Fortunately, it flowers most months!

One of the few field tasks we have continued at YWT during lockdown has been checking our livestock to make sure they are healthy and happy. I am on the rota for checking the sheep at Strensall Common, so this morning I got to go out to count the sheep. Counting sheep is a challenge, not least because it can send you to sleep, but also because they can be surprisingly hard to find among the undulating heather and bracken-clad heath, interspersed with stands of Silver Birch. Nevertheless, I savoured the exeprience this morning, enjoying the tranquility of the early morning heath.

34 Hebridean Sheep and one Charollais cross. All present and correct.

My First Cuckoo of the year was calling to the south and at least two Tree Pipits were singing away from the tops of the birches, looking striking in the early morning sun. Garden Warblers chattered away in the scrub with many Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps for accompaniment.

Nice views of one of the freshly arrived Tree Pipits, showing nice strong bill, bold head pattern and underparts with heavy black streaking on the buffy breast, contrasting with white belly with fine pencil-thin streaks. Quite different and striking compared with the nearby Meadow Pipits.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Lockdown Birding: RED-RUMPED SWALLOW!!!!!!!!

Saturday morning. The weather had changed to a slight murk with a light easterly. The kind of conditions that would send me scurrying to Wheldrake Ings or maybe Flamborough Head, full of anticipation for some top spring birding. But not this year. The current reality is that I, like everybody else, is birding close to home due to Lockdown restrictions. Several York birders had jammed in on some quality spring migrants over the past few weeks; Ring Ouzel, Redstart, Osprey, even a White-tailed Eagle (!), but I had had to make do with some quality Wheatears, Yellow Wags and Little Owls. Nothing to set the pulse racing too much, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I decided to cycle out to the south of the village to check some fields and rough grassland for migrants. Maybe a Ring Ouzel or a Whinchat would turn up. Fingers crossed. I checked the pea field just south of Bishopthorope: no Dotterels, but an Oystercatcher was nice. Just down the road two Swallows sat on the wires and I stopped underneath and took a pic with my phone. Gorgeous birds.

A little further on and I noticed a bunch of hirundines flying low over the camping field and ditch next to the road. There was a few House Martins among them, so I stopped for a look. Several were sitting on the telegraph wires including some martins, so I got my scope out for a look. Then, a Red-rumped Swallow flew low over the grass right in front of me, showing off a shiny blue back, peachy collar and orangey rump. WHAAATTT????!!!!!

Surely not, this is Acaster Malbis, not Flamborough! It banked round and I saw the peachy underparts, pale throat and 'stuck on' long black tail. Holy Crap! A massive adrenaline surge nearly knocked me off my feet and a thousand thoughts rushed through my head - could I release the news? Would I be in trouble for encouraging a twitch? What if it flew off without me managing to get a pic? Anyway, I could see that some of the flock were still sitting on the wires, so I rapidly set my scope up on them in the hope it would land. About forty Swallows, House and Sand Martins lined the wires. The Red-rump continued to cruise around low over the turf in front of me - was this really happening? I was shaking and my head was spinning. Calm down, lad!

I put the news out locally and Chris Gomersall who lives nearby said he was on his way. I tried to get a handheld phone video of it - my only option unless it decided to land on the wires. I didn't know whether the phone with its tiny zoom would pick it up, but it did:

Apologies for the commentary - given to myself!

Here is a grab from that clip.

After a few minutes and to my delight, the bird then settled on the wires and I managed a first bit of phonescoped video. Relief! What a stunner! It had really long tail streamers, so presumably a male. Within moments, Chris arrived and to my relief the bird was still sitting on the wire allowing Chris to get straight on it. Boom!

The bird preened frequently, between bouts of feeding, where it did a low circuit of the camping field, the nearby sheep field and the ditch. Keeping our social distance (!) we moved to a better position where we could get closer views when it came back to perch.

The last time it perched, it sat further along the wires with the trees behind, giving us more colour. Superb!

This was the last time it settled. On taking flight, the flock of c40 hirundines gained some height over the Ship Inn car park. The RRS was easy to pick out, with more languid flight and big long forked tail. It glided round in lazy circles among the more frenetic martins. Chris drew my attention to a Common Swift that had joined the throng, my first of the year! A Sparrowhawk cruised through a few minutes later - perhaps why they were nervous. All of a sudden, about 10.40am, the flock disappeared, leaving no trace of the Red-rump or any of its gang. I didn't see it again.

Red-rumped Swallow is a bird I have always looked for in April in flocks of hirundines but never found. To find one anywhere would be a treat but within a mile of my house is just amazing and feels like a dream. In any other circumstances, I would be elsewhere, but this just shows what local patching can deliver.


A message I never thought I would see. Red-rumped Swallow, Bishopthorpe. Absolute #LockdownBirding scenes!

If accepted by the YNU, this will be the fourth record for the York recording area, the last being one seen briefly by Andy Walker at Heslington East in May 2013 - see here.

The previous accepted records are:
  • Wheldrake Ings, 3rd May 2010
  • Naburn Sewage Works, 16-17th May 1979
A bird at Healaugh on 7th May 1974 was just outside the York recording area.


In other news, besides the RRS and Swift, I had ten House Martins, ten Sand Martins, 20 Swallows, three Yellow Wagtails, c50 Fieldfares and several Whitethroats. Local birding ain't too bad!

Friday 24 April 2020

Lockdown Birding: Look more closely

This week has been about looking more closely, either in my garden at the emerging life in the pond, or on my morning dog walk, or whilst cycling round the local area.

The Little Owls are still showing well by the river, but you could easily walk past without noticing one of the little characters. Both Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats have arrived during the week and numbers of Willow Warblers have increased. Good numbers of Swallows and Sand Martins are over the river, but still only one or two House Martins over the estate and no sign of a Swift yet.

Down at Colton, a seemingly barren arable field fizzed with birds on closer inspection. One White Wagtail was among half a dozen gloriously bright Yellow Wagtails, and a dozen dashing Pied Wagtails. Nearby, a smart Wheatear hopped about, showing well in the evening sunshine. Nearby, a male Stonechat fed by dropping down into a sheep pasture from a barbed wire fence. It is always worth looking a bit more closely.

On the way back, I drank in the tranquility of the sun's failing rays shining through a local Bluebell wood. How many of these things would I have seen if I wasn't restricted to the local area?

Saturday 18 April 2020

Please leave me alone!

Now is the season for baby birds to be bouncing out of their nests into our back gardens.

I am frequently asked for advice on what to do with the baby Blackbird/Song Thrush/Robin/House Sparrow that has been found by a well-meaning friend or member of the public.

My answer is always the same: If it is not in immediate danger, please leave it alone! 

Unless next door's cat, your dog, or a passing car is about to take it out, then it is more than capable of survival, and the best chance it's got is if it is left alone and supported by its parents.

This is also true of Tawny Owl chicks. These adventurous little cuties are starting to climb out of their nest holes now and explore the branches nearby. This can lead to tumbles on to the floor. Usually, they survive the fall and are capable of clambering back up the tree trunk to safety. So again, please leave them alone unless they are in peril.

If a bird is in danger, just move it a short way to cover, scare away the local prowling moggy and then step back. This will give the youngster the best chance of survival. Thank you!

Lockdown Birding: Hanging in there

So, birding these days consists of what I can see in my small back garden, from my office window - which is actually my son's bedroom window! - on a short pre-breakfast dog walk by the River Ouse at Bishopthorpe and then once or twice a week, a cycle ride over to Acaster Airfield. In addition, I keep an eye out when doing essential work for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust which is limited currently to checking livestock at a couple of sites, to make sure they are safe and healthy. I am sad not to be able to see how birds are responding to the habitat creation works we have done at a number of our sites over the winter. Hopefully we will get a pleasant surprise when we can go back out later on.

I miss visiting Wheldrake Ings particularly as April is one of the best months for the site. However, the anticipation of what I might see when I finally return keeps me going.

Meanwhile, I have been immersing myself in the local birds and wildlife, enjoying every new spring migrant as it arrives (Whitethroat this morning for instance) or first sighting of a butterfly, bee or moth for the year, and getting to know my immediate area much better. I have discovered a regular spot for Little Owls and I see them most mornings now. A real treat. I haven't yet jammed in on a Ring Ouzel or Redstart, but there is still time and this northeasterly wind holds promise.

Curlew- a pair is present just south of Bishopthorpe. Their evocative bubbling calls are a joy to hear first thing in a morning.

Today, between bouts of poring through the scarce bird records for the York area bird report 2019, I am skywatching from Sol's bedroom window. So far, 17 Fieldfares have flown east - maybe the last I will see this spring? - a few local Buzzards and Sparrowhawks have been circling around and a Tree Sparrow has flown west. No Osprey yet, but I will keep up my vigil. Stay safe everybody, and enjoy your local wildlife. Don't worry about what you are missing and enjoy getting a bit closer to the common stuff.

Thursday 9 April 2020

Lockdown Mothing #2

#2? Well, this is my second go with the moth trap this spring, but I didn't post anything about #1. Anyway, after a warm spring day and a cloudy night, I had a good catch, with a number of new species. I haven't really trapped this early in the year before, so I am getting a number of firsts for the garden. #1 had added Twin-spotted Quaker and I found another couple of those among the egg cartons today. Two of today's most exciting were outside the trap- a beautiful Waved Umber perched on the soffit board and The Streamer, an exquisite little dude that shot off into the bushes as soon a I reached for my phone camera. Inside, several Hebrew Characters were upstaged by two beautifully marked Early Thorns, whilst two Early Greys blended in so well with the egg cartons that I almost overlooked them! A quagmire of quakers tested my ID skills, with a couple of lovely, furry Small Quakers and a couple of Twin-spotteds discovered.

Small Quaker - check out that fur!
Below, Early Grey.

 The butterfly like Early Thorn perched on the wall. Very cool!

 Hebrew Character. Quite cool-looking, with an awesome name!

Lockdown Birding: Up with the lark, well, the owl

Last Sunday, I got up at dawn and went out for my daily exercise by bike, looking for wildlife. The chorus of birdsong was breathtaking and uplifting. Rabbits nibbled along the lane verges, whilst their rangier cousins, hares, loped about in the fields. I saw several Roe Deer and near the old church, some angry Song Thrushes and Blackbirds drew my attention to a pair of Little Owls. The owls scowled at me, although seemed unconcerned by my presence. On the ings, a pair of Little Egrets hunted frogs in the remnants of the great flood.

Little Owl and Little Egrets

A little further on, I found a female Wheatear busily feeding in a ploughed field; my first of the year.

As the sun rose, the mammals melted away into their daytime abodes and the hunting Barn Owl headed for its roost. A Red Kite cruised past.

As I headed for home, a last check of the ings revealed a distant pipit. Interesting! Surely a Water Pipit? Following a patient stalk, its credentials faded until I realised it was 'just' a Meadow Pipit.

Distant pipit.

Just a Mippit...

Saturday 4 April 2020

Lockdown Birding: Skywatcher

With winds going southerly, birds are moving. Apart from a short dog walk, lockdown means I can't go birding, so I grabbed my bins, scope and a chair and took up residence for a few hours in my son's bedroom. The window faces east out over the estate and to the River Ouse beyond, running north to south, or left to right as I look at it. I have a good vista, so the plan is to sit and wait, and see what flies past....I will update this blog as I go.

My view...a high boredom threshold and eternal optimism helps!

Bishopthorpe Skywatch from 12.05 to 17.05 (only birds of interest noted)

Common Buzzard - local birds are soaring about as usual. Good markers for something bigger, or different.
Herring Gull - several birds tracking north along the course of the river
Lesser Black-backed Gull - several adults seen heading north and south.
Fieldfare - c80 flew north at 12.30pm. c30 flew northwest at 13.00.
Red Kite - 1 to the southeast at 13.10.
Sparrowhawk - two individuals seen
Kestrel - pair seen over edge of village to the south.
Common Snipe - pair flew southwest at 14.36 with another west at 15.28. Garden tick!
MARSH HARRIER! - Female-type flew steadily south along the river at 13.10!! First for garden list.
Skylark - one singing over ings to the east early afternoon
Reed Bunting - one male flew west over house - didn't appear in the back garden, sadly.
House Martin - first of the year flew west at 15.50.

Lesser Black-back. Not easy phonescoping flying birds!

Cormorant. One of five seen. The only one I managed to get a pic of!

Lockdown Birding: Scoter Patrol 1-3 April 2020

1st April 2020

If you'd told me a year ago that next 1st April I would be adding Common Scoter to my garden list, I would have assumed it was some rather geeky April Fool joke. Well, two nights ago, York birding mates tipped me off that there were Common Scoters moving east over Yorkshire under the cover of darkness. I went out into the back garden and apart from the neighbour's noisy water feature, the village was eerily silent. Under lockdown, folks are staying in - very sensible.

I listened intently. Nothing. After a bit, I messaged to say that I had drawn a blank and as I pocketed my phone, to the south I heard the faint peeps of scoters! No way!  A small flock headed east through the night sky, heading for the east coast, with only their distinctive calls marking their course. Amazing!

Scoter patrol: Up there in the dark, Common Scoters are migrating...

2nd April 2020

I had struggled to sleep after my scoter experience and decided I would put more time in this evening. Dusk fell and the news came through on social media that birders over on the west coast had started to hear the calls of Common Scoters heading inland from the sea. It seems three routes are in use - one to the south, connecting the Severn Estuary with the Wash, a middle one Connecting the Fylde coast with the Humber/Yorkshire coast presumably birds following the M62 corridor across the Pennines and then one to the north with birds cutting across near Carlisle and hitting the Tyne. When I lived at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire we had witnessed Common Scoters, Arctic Terns and skuas using the southern flyway and we had often discussed how they may have followed the channel between the Cotswolds and Chilterns until they got near enough to see the glint of the sea. It seemed that York lay along the middle flyway and birds passing east on a broad front were coming in range of my garden. Excellent.

I headed out about 9.40pm, this time to the front garden to escape the noise of the water feature. Shortly, the much hoped-for sound of Common Scoters could be heard faintly to the north of the village. The birds heading east called continuously. I felt euphoric - this is so cool! A few minutes later, another group passed over, followig a similar route. Shortly, two more flocks went through, this time much closer, or perhaps lower with calls much louder than before. I messaged as many York birders as I could think of and a number of people managed to hear a few passing over. Awesome!

Yet another reason the neigbours think I am crazy!

3rd April

News of scoters moving meant I was out on Scoter Patrol again around 10pm. Not as good tonight, but still brilliant to get two flocks go through. Even better perhaps, was the hiss of a Barn Owl that flew by unseen followed by a Little Owl calling over towards the river. Brilliant! After half an hour with no more ducks, I decided to head for bed as I was frozen.