Sunday, 25 April 2021

Blue skies

Blue skies continued and so did a run of dips during the week. In between climbing ladders to install Swift boxes, I popped down to Acaster to look for migrants. This largely failed, though there were a few Yellow Wagtails about and 'fresh-in' Whitethroats including this pair. The local Barn Owl was flying about enjoying the sunshine, happily flying past at close range several times.




York Swifts

Two years ago, Peter Watson former chair of the York Ornithological Club asked me if I wanted to set up a Swift project for the York area. Swifts, that charismatic summer migrant. are declining throughout the UK, due to a loss of nest sites (as we modernise our roofs) and the massive decline in flying insects due to the overuse of pesticides. Of course I was keen to help and a small group of us met in a pub (remember when you could do that!) to divvy up jobs between us. I set up the Twitter feed (@York_Swifts), Neil offered to build the boxes and Peter said he would seek locations to put them up. Game on.

Fast forward two years and Neil had built the boxes but Peter had moved up to Northumberland, so a plan B was called for. I agreed to take the boxes off Neil and seek locations, but I wasn't sure how! I put messages on the Bishopthorpe Community Facebook page and the York Birding Googlegroup, and to my delight, the boxes went quicker than tickets for a Take That reunion tour, with lots of people keen to help, requesting one. About half of the people needed a bit of help installing them, so I dug out my drill and ladder and spent the best part of the weekend meeting up with fab people and installing the boxes. These supportive people also offered donations to fund the next batch of boxes - brilliant!! With the first Swifts arriving back in Yorkshire over the weekend, we've got them up just in time!



These were the last two I put up, on Lang Road in Bishopthorpe and probably the highest! With the three section ladder almost on full extension and a fresh breeze my knees were wobbling somewhat!


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Dejection under blue skies

Two mornings looking for rare waders in the LDV left me feeling a little dejected, as Friday's Lesser Yellowlegs failed to reappear, although I did enjoy my morning with old mate Philip yesterday.

Two circuits of the LDV revealed an unexpected Short-eared Owl this morning at Aughton, with a single Whimbrel with 28 loafing Curlews on the refuge at Wheldrake on Saturday morning, Greenshank again at North Duffield Carrs, up to eight Dunlins and two Ruffs there yesterday too, my first Yellow Wagtails and Whitethroats of the spring and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers and Grey Partridges on Church Ings, Acaster. 

A single Whimbrel, fifth bird from the right.
 

I failed to find any Ring Ouzels or Redstarts around the Acaster - Bolton Percy area this morning or this afternoon, despite a male Redstart being seen on the airfield this morning! A Great Egret made a statuesque appearance on Swantail this morning and I enjoyed watching Corn Buntings and Lapwings in the bare plough, though I still felt rather dejected under the bluest of spring skies. Dip-ressed clearly!

At the river, I counted over 100 Tansy Beetles in several patches between the first two stiles south of the Naburn swingbridge, my highest ever count. 

Lapwing and Corn Bunting, in migrant-less fields, near East Cottingwith.



 


So near, yet so far

I was stunned to get a message mid-afternoon on Friday, stating that Duncan Bye and Craig Ralston had discovered a Lesser Yellowlegs at North Duffield Carrs!

Firing up the Aygo, I shot straight there after work. Unfortunately, they had to leave before I arrived and with no eyes on the bird, Tim Jones and myself had a veritable needle in a haystack to find. Nevertheless, with perseverance, we picked up an interesting looking wader, feeding actively in the waterlogged grass. This bird looked good, though views were tantalising in the shimmering heat haze and deep grass. These issues had apparently caused the original observers a few problems too and they hadn't managed to get any photos or video of their bird. We talked ourselves into thinking this was probably the 'legs', but as it came closer, that short, fine bill suddenly looked longer, thicker and even uptilted, incorrect plumage features jumped out at us, and we both realised we were watching a Greenshank. 

Had this bird fooled the others too? It certainly looked interesting at a distance (although we had both thought it looked a little big though this was hard to judge), but the others said they had also heard a Greenshank and had seen their bird close to a Redshank, demonstrating it's smaller size, so presumably not.

Time was getting on and I kept finding the same waders time and time again, suggesting we weren't missing anything else. Yet another Lesser Yellowlegs dip in the York area! Bugger. I accepted defeat and drove home feeling gloomy, my rejected Lesser Yellowlegs record from Wheldrake grating in my head and thoughts of last autumn's bird that I had also missed through being away, adding to the misery of this dip. 


Greenshank. So near, yet so far!

Purple Haze

Spent the day at Ingleborough which was brilliant under azure skies. After work, Frank gave me a lift up the mountain to have a look at a clump of Purple Saxifrage, a rare plant found on the mountain top. 

After a bumpy ride and steep walk, we found this exquisite flower growing on a limestone crag top, jutting out of the mountain side, a really stunning location, with the Irish Sea shimmering behind the iconic summit of Ingleborough in the background. 

Thanks, Frank!


Back at Colt Park, the white-flowered Rue-leaved Saxifrage was modestly growing on a drystone wall in the car park.

 

On Monday, I bobbed into Salt Lake Quarry to have a look at the Daphne Mezereum, or Lady's Laurel, that had been discovered recently. A smart little shrub, with pink flowers, growing along the edge of the site. A rare plant in Yorkshire, this was presumably transported here by winter thrushes, that are fond of the berries. Whether the provenance of the berries was a wild plant or a cultivated one is impossible to know.



 


Lady GarGa - not American

A big flock of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in the shallow water adjacent to the 'Cormorant Trees' at Wheldrake Ings on Wednesday evening. Later on, I thought I'd found a Blue-winged Teal, when I noticed a smaller duck flying around with a gang of Shovelers. BWTs often associate with Shovelers when they rock up on this side of the Atlantic, so this looked promising, but on closer inspection, it was 'only' a female Garganey. So, not an American vagrant. Still, my first of the spring and great to see. No Whimbrel came into roost despite an unusually early flock of 23 being reported here the previous two nights.

Icelandic Blackwits, fuelling up for their big journey north

 Lady GarGa with Shoveler

A smart Roebuck on Swantail


Sunday, 11 April 2021

Twin Ouzels

I have walked a fair few miles over the last few days, looking for migrants, with my particular target being Ring Ouzels, which seemed to be turning up all over the country. Nevertheless, it was not to be. I began to think even a Wheatear would have been nice!

Things started well, with a female Common Scoter (see below) being a nice surprise at Wheldrake on Friday first thing, with a flyover Great Egret, and the Black-tailed Godwit flock on the refuge the main highlights, along with my first Sedge Warblers of the year. 

 

Nothing seemed to be moving in the cold weather, so I headed up to the Forest for a Goshawk fix. It is getting on a bit in the season now and I wasn't that surprised that they were not too showy, as presumably some birds are on eggs. Nevertheless, a couple of males performed occasionally above the ridge, one sparring with an immature Peregrine and another with a Buzzard. Just before I headed back to York, two stiff-winged females (an immature and an adult) got up and displayed for a few minutes, even engaging in a bit of a dogfight, complete with grappling talons. The immature shot off into the distance whilst the adult stooped back into the dark of the forest. A Dipper showed well on a nearby river, collecting insects to feed its unseen brood.

 Water Ouzel

After another fruitless and snowy (no, really!) search of the nearby fields for ouzels, it was heartening, well, gripping, to hear that Rob Chapman had found a Ring Ouzel at the Heslington Tilmire. To lift myself out of birdless gloom, I twitched it in the evening. Initially, it was found feeding on a tilled strip alongside a hedge at about 500 metres range - standard Ringo distance - but after an icy-cold wait, it hopped all the way towards me, to within about 20 metres and gave great views. A Wheatear was also present along with at least eight Golden Plovers and a Barn Owl flew past, flushing the Ouzel. 

Ring Ouzel and Wheatear



Golden Plover.

In other news there have been two Little Ringed Plovers at Acaster Church Ings over the weekend and I collected 19 Swift boxes from Neil all ready to put up around York!

Another classy LRP shot.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Springsects!

With the warm spell last week, insects were out in force, including this female Tawny Mining Bee and a few solitary Andrena bees (TBC) on the dandelions. 

Andrena bee sp.
Tawny Mining Bee


Farewell Swans!

It has been a fantastic passage of Whooper Swans this spring, with large numbers being seen following the Ouse and Lower Derwent Valleys, as they head north for Icelandic breeding grounds. Watching birds dropping on to the ings late in the afternoon, tired after a flight up from the Cambridgeshire Washes was magical. It was clearly thirsty work for the swans, as this herd showed after dropping in a week or so ago at North Duffield Carrs.

 

It was also a joy to see birds moving off early morning having spent the night locally, fully rested, for the next leg of their migration. Farewell, I look forward to welcoming you and the kids back in October. 

Early morning Whooper Swans, Wheldrake Ings.


Lesserpecker!

It is sad that I have to make a real effort these days to see a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but it is always an effort that is worthwhile, if indeed it pays off. Today was such a day. Thanks to lockdown, it had been too long since I had got out birding with my old mate Philip, so we agreed to meet up to look for Lesserpeckers, whilst catching up on lockdown antics.

The sun was bright, the icy wind had eased but it was still unseasonably nippy, as we headed out into the forest early doors. Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs bravely sang; you could almost hear their beaks chattering. A small flurry of wheezing Bramblings was an unexpected treat, as was a Tawny Owl, who looked most miffed by the gang of angry passerines it had attracted. Siskins and Lesser Redpolls swarmed through the birch canopy, Nuthatches sang continuously and both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers called unseen amid the trees.

A chance meeting with a couple of other birders proved to be fortuituous; they pointed us towards a large oak where they had seen a male LSW drumming earlier. In such a large expanse of woodland with lots of similar trees, the chance the bird would return seemed fairly low, but we thought we'd try! After 15 minutes, in flew a Lesserpecker, a female, who bounced up a protruding dead branch and began to drum loudly. I had not seen a female drum before, but apparently they do this pretty regularly and in all respects performed similarly to the male I saw in Leeds a couple of years ago - see here

She seemed entirely unconcerned by our presence, and continued drumming for a few minutes, occasionally pausing, presumably to listen for any replies, or to look out for predators. After a bit, she hopped up the branch, testing the resonance of a few surfaces, before flying off high over the canopy to the north. We didn't see her again. 

Later, we met up with the rest of the family and had a nice heathy walk, serenaded by Woodlarks and Stonechats.
 



Larking

Woodlarks have got to be one of the best singers going. Mostly delivered airborne or from a lofty branch, they sometimes sing from the ground, or low perch, particularly if caught out by an intruding male from an adjacent territory. I had been watching a pair feeding in the grassy interface between woodland and heath when this happened; the male immediately jumped on to a nearby dead branch and started to sing a cascade of pure heavenly notes, before catapulting skywards to see off the interloper. Despite setbacks in hard winters, Woodlarks are doing well in the UK, with increases in range and numbers, though there have been losses in some parts of their range too. 




Memory Grebes

Black-necked Grebes used to be a feature of spring in the York area, with a small colony breeding in the Lower Derwent Valley, back in the '90s. With a management regime altered to protect the rare floodplain meadow grassland, water levels ebb naturally. This this has reduced the suitability for nesting Black-headed Gulls, which often host Black-necked Grebes among their colonies. As a consequence, these days BNGs are rare in the York area, although birds still do turn up occasionally in spring. A little to the west, they have established in the Aire Valley and seem to be doing well. A few weeks ago, a pair turned up locally and provided a hint of colour towards the end of lockdown and helped relive memories of these charismatic small grebes.






Sunday, 4 April 2021

Brace Yourselves!

Plenty of Swallows back in the York area, adding their effervescent twittering to the chorus of singing birds. Several were sitting on phonewires at Bank Island this morning, enjoying the sunshine. Tonight, icy, Arctic air will pour down from the, ahem, Arctic, and I hope these little guys will cope. It will be a touch milder mid-week before going cold again. 

Also this morning, 14 Black-tailed Godwits and 20 Dunlins at North Duffield Carrs. 



Friday, 2 April 2021

Spring met Winter

A jet of southerly air mid-week pushed the mercury over 20 degrees and a rush of spring migrants poured into Britain. Early Willow Warblers sang from the greening riverside bushes at Wheldrake, whilst Swallows and Sand Martins caught emerging insects, and I narrowly missed a migrating Osprey on Wednesday evening. The first Tawny Mining Bees and Dark-edged Bee-flies zipped around the blossom and spring flowers in the garden and paused in the sunny spots together with Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies. The moth trap pulled in several species including Early Grey, Hebrew Character, Clouded Drab and three species of Quaker.

Today though, a cold northerly wind pushed the warmth back south and temperatures plummeted and my early emergence from my warm bed seemed ill-planned. Winter had re-asserted itself and the chill looks bedded-in for the Easter weekend. 

Despite this, the birds were still greeting the cold dawn vigourously and the air was buzzing at Wheldrake. A ghostly male Hen Harrier cruised south, accompanied by the black shadow of a Carrion Crow. A good start! More Willow Warblers had arrived; I counted four along the river. 31 Whooper Swans were vocal on the flood and two thirds of the herd headed off north later on. 215 Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits huddled on the refuge occasionally flying around when buzzed by a Marsh Harrier or Buzzard, all pied wings and fiery bellies, before alighting for a frantic bout of preening. A solitary Golden Plover and a few Fieldfares headed east.

The Hen Harrier reappeared as I walked back along the river but didn't hang around. A frenzy of hirundines were feeding in the lee of the trees at Bank Island, including a smart House Martin, my earliest ever record, along with about 20 Swallows and a similar number of Sand Martins. On to North Duffield Carrs, where 20 Dunlin were feeding on the ings. A Great Egret dropped in from the south on to the river and out of sight, having possibly been seen a little earlier over Hemingbrough. I made my way up the east side of the valley, but the ings were mostly dry. I added Egyptian Goose to my York yearlist at East Cottingwith before calling it a day. A great start to April with a fascinating mix of winter and summer migrants.






Monday, 29 March 2021

First Swallow

 Great to see my first Swallow and Little Ringed Plover at Hellifield Flash this morning. About 30 Sand Martins also present but the Ring-necked Duck seems to have moved on.




Sunday, 28 March 2021

On the move

It's spring and whatever the weather, birds are on the move. This weekend, my first Wheatear of the year was found by Christ Gomerasall at Wheldrake Ings, whilst today, a Knot dropped in briefly at North Duffield Carrs. Several Sand Martins were seen during the weekend, but still no Swallow. Curlews are back on territory in the LDV but there are still flocks of birds moving through bound for more northerly areas. A Great Egret was found by Duncan Bye at Wheldrake Ings this morning which was my first locally this year. The wind will swing southerly on Monday night, so there could be a push of early spring migrants. Exciting times ahead!


From top, Wheatear, Knot, Curlew, Great Egret (or possibly bin bag)


Sunday, 21 March 2021

Not all men - but it could be


A little while ago, I asked a keen local birding friend why they didn't visit Wheldrake Ings very much, when it is clearly one of the best local birding sites. 

Their answer was that the site is quite isolated and wasn't somewhere they wanted to visit on their own as they felt quite vulnerable there. This was quite shocking and saddening to find out. But as a man, this had never really occurred to me. But to her, yes, my friend was female, it was all too real. 

That fear of a long one-way walk into a potentially lonely place, not knowing who you might meet. Not knowing who might come into a hide while you are birding. Being a long way from help if anything unwanted happened. Only one way in, one way out.

This was like a big slap in the face to me. I had birded here thousands of times over thirty years (Yes, I am that old!) and my mind was usually focussed on what birds I was hoping to see, what birds I had seen here before and what birds others were seeing elsewhere. I haven't needed to ever be worried about being here. How damn lucky I am. Because I am a man.  

The horrific abduction and murder of York woman Sarah Everard sent shock waves throughout the UK and following this there has been much discussion about what women have had to put up with and endure from men in our own loved birding and wildlife community throughout their lives. This is horrifying. The petty reaction to this by some men, some men I have previously respected, has also been pretty horrifying.

I have had some slightly nerve-wracking moments at Wheldrake Ings. On warm spring evenings, when the Whimbrel are gathering before heading up to Iceland and there's a chance of a Garganey or Black Tern dropping in, gangs of youths often hang out in the car park, for a smoke and a drink. Usually, they ignore me, as I hastily jump in my car as dusk approaches and head off. Several times though, I have been approached with lads wanting a look through my bins or have a go with my camera (what most non-birders think my scope is). This can be quite scary and I always wonder if I will have my gear taken off me, or worse. But these events have taken up a tiny amount of time in what is a relaxing and enjoyable place for me to visit on my own. And all I really have to worry about is losing my bins or scope. Those things are replaceable. To feel that if I was female, I might have a feeling of fear in the back of my mind the whole time about even worse possibilities, is really awful and so incredibly unfair. Wheldrake and other places like it should be safe for everybody to visit, not just men like me. 

So, what to do about this situation? Clearly not all men are a danger to women. But any man could be a danger to a woman, and that is the key thing that all men must keep in mind when thinking about these issues. And yes, it might only be a minority of men and therefore an even smaller minority of male birders who would ever commit a crime against a woman, but it is the every day sexist 'banter', the routine remarks made to mock, belittle, or let's be honest, bully our female birding counterparts that creates that hostile atmosphere in our community. This is something we can all actively do to step up and stamp out this kind of behaviour when we witness it, in the field or online. Call it out with your mates. We can't change the whole of society, but let's at least make birding and the wildlife community we all love, a safe-space for everybody. It is not good enough for men just to smugly think 'well I would never treat a woman badly, or commit a crime'. We have to be proactive and take responsibility for getting rid of this behaviour, stamping it out in our community. Otherwise, we are complicit.

Additionally, there are some great tips online about how to avoid making women feel uncomfortable while out birding. One big thing is to avoid situations where a woman may perceive that you are following them, even if that is completely unintentional. Wheldrake Ings is a classic place with one path in and one path out, and as I am usually in a rush, I often catch up with people on the path in front of me. It had never really occurred to me that this could be worrying for a solitary woman. But now I know that it could be, I will actively try and avoid this situation, by giving women room, stopping to birdwatch if I could be perceived to be following someone, and so on. If we could all be mindful of this, that would be a good thing. 

I am lucky enough to work for an organisation that looks after sites like Wheldrake Ings. I want everybody to be able to enjoy these sites equally, no matter their gender, age, socio-economic status etc. So, I will be seeking input into how we can make sites more welcoming and less scary for people to visit, especially those who feel more vulnerable in these wild places. At some of the sites I work on, we have put in 'backless' hides, more like screens, so people can see if anybody is there already. Traditional garden shed-like hides can be very intimidating to enter. They are dark, creepy places, especially if you are not used to using them. What else could we do? Any thoughts, please do contact me on Twitter @birdingdad.

We all grieve for Sarah Everard and I can not bear to think what her family and friends must be going through. But if us men can make the world a safer place for women then something good will have come from this tragic situation. 

Black Swan with Whooper Swans, Wheldrake Ings 20th March.




The March of Spring!

Three visits to Wheldrake Ings in four days. The highlight was a big movement of Icelandic Whooper Swans which departed the Ouse Washes to the south in a mass exodus. Large herds were seen throughout Yorkshire, though mainly on the traditional flyways. The LDV received its fair share, with big groups dropping in to roost at the southern end of the valley, before heading off a couple of hours after dawn, passing through Wheldrake on their way north. I assume they rest again on the west coast, before doing a long hop up to Iceland. They really provide a breathtaking spectacle as they effortlessly trumpet their way north, keeping in formation. Majestic!

Yesterday, 132 went north in two groups,  one of which can be seen above, and today, 81 in two groups (60 and 21), some of which dropped on the ings briefly. 

 

As if the Whoopers weren't good enough (they were), even better was to come, when I picked up the distinctive, elagant forms of two Common Cranes flapping imperially west over Storwood. I watched them pass over the Low Grounds and let Duncan Bye know, who I knew was at Bank Island, and Adam Firth who was at home in Elvington. 

Fortunately, the Cranes headed purposefully northwest and went straight past Duncan, who grabbed a couple of great pics - see below - before continuing past Adam a few moments later. Perhaps the same birds were seen heading northwest at Brockholes, Lancashire, three hours later on. 

Cranes. Simply stunning! March is a good time to pick up Cranes drifting across the North Sea as they head up to Scandinavia to breed.

Also Iceland-bound, were c50 Black-tailed Godwits, whilst in the reedbed a Cetti's Warbler was still singing. 40 Fieldfares and a handful of Redwings were also seen and three singing Willow Tits were along the riverside path. Absolutely class. Still no Sand Martins though!


Friday, 12 March 2021

Heads Up!


A fantastic day yesterday, planting the first 680 trees at Ingleborough to kick off our Wild Ingleborough project. Drove past Hellifield Flash on the way, so stopped off to see the drake Ring-necked Duck that my old mate Chris Gomersall had found recently. The bird was actively feeding at the west end with a handful of Tufties, sheltering from the galeforce westerly that was blowing my ears back to front. The flash looked like the sea and it was tricky to take some phonescoped pics in the wind. A cracking bird, I stopped for another look on the way home as the sun had come out, illuminating the bird's chestnut neck-ring.

 

 

Hellifield Flash. Just west of Hellifield village on the A65. The lake is just next to the main road and can be scoped from the west side from Waterside Lane. The flash is threatened with development plans, which is a massive shame. YWT is objecting.


Sunday, 7 March 2021

Breathing Space


An early start down at Wheldrake Ings, the sky alive with the songs of Skylarks and the joyous bubbling of Curlews. After a frenetic week at work, I needed a bit of breathing space. A couple of Chiffchaffs sang along the riverside, my first singing birds of the year, along with some very noisy Willow Tits. Eight adult Whooper Swans on the flood were northbound migrants and 13 White-fronted Geese unexpectedly dropped in. 

A Cetti's Warbler was back in the reedbed which is now accessible, as the water has receded. I was hoping for a Sand Martin to add to the spring-feel, but it was not to be. Neverthless, a beautifully relaxing few hours, immersed in nature on this early spring morning.


 

Great to see Willow Tits singing and displaying. One of the UK's fastest declining birds, yet doing ok in the LDV.


Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Feisty Finches

A couple of Siskins have been dropping in occasionally to feed in the garden. They are tiny, but very feisty; the female doesn't tolerate any other birds on the feeder at the same time, no matter how much bigger they are. The handsome male is a bit more chilled.

 Siskins: male (top) and female, with male Chaffinch