Dog walks and bike rides were the lockdown weekend highlights, with a deep, biting frost gripping the land. On the ings, ice was abandoned, left stranded as the floodwater receded, occasionally collapsing with a noise like a cricket ball going through a greenhouse. Just across the river, a Little Owl peeped out of an old shed, blinking in the sunlight. Nearby, a flighty flock of exquisite Lesser Redpolls fed nervously in a Silver Birch. A couple or more Mealy Redpolls were in with the flock, but were tricky to photograph. No sign of anything rarer with the group, but a flock to keep an eye on for sure. Later, A big bunting flock on the airfield cried out for a ticking rarity, but sadly I couldn't find anything. At least 50 Reed Buntings was pretty impressive nevertheless. A Green Woodpecker flushed from a steaming manure pile was also a surprise.
Sunday 24 January 2021
Snow melt and lots of rain has deeply flooded the LDV and the Ouse valley. I had a ride out to Bank Island early yesterday, but mist blanketed the valley, providing an ethereal view but killing any chance of birding.
The early morning sun activated some early spring birdsong, with Great Tits, Dunnocks and this fiery Robin giving it beans.
Thursday 14 January 2021
I have been getting a lot of solace from watching the birds in the back garden since the new lockdown was imposed. Today, heavy snow brought frenetic activity to the feeders, with the display of up to 30 Goldfinches adding dazzling colour to proceedings. No sign of yesterday's Long-tails, but the female Blackcap visited regularly throughout the day, being the last bird on the feeders at dusk again. Good numbers of Greenfinches today, up to eight, a real treat. Several Chaffinches are around but are a little more furtive than their more brightly-coloured cousins.
Wednesday 13 January 2021
Into the third lockdown, the back garden has been buzzing with birds, keeping my spirits up whilst working from home. Some unusual visitors yesterday; firstly the female Blackcap made an appearance again and at one point had what can only have been a rather chilly bath, in the pond. Also, a Goldcrest was hovering about the Scot's Pine, picking off unseen tiny prey, whilst the highlight was a trio of delightful Long-tailed Tits, that spent about twenty minutes in the garden. They used to be fairly regular, passing through on their daily circuit, but this is the first time I have seen them here all year.
Britain's smallest bird, the Goldcrest
Monday 11 January 2021
Big gull roost at Wheldrake Ings yesterday afternoon though I failed to pull anything out. The most interesting bird was this adult gull with dark upperparts. Structurally, it looked like an Argentatus Herring Gull, but what is it? Hybrid Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull has been suggested and that seems plausible. However, as you can see towards the end of the pic, there is very little black in the wingtip.
Any comments welcome.
Please note Wheldrake is only accessible wearing waders and as far as the bridge only due to flooding.
Friday 8 January 2021
A bit of snow in the air this morning, though we escaped the heavy fall seen elsewhere in the county. Plenty of birds about in the garden and among them was a new visitor, a female Blackcap. She was pretty bold and surprisingly had a liking for sunflower hearts which she devoured boldly, mixing it with the bumptious finches and House Sparrows. She visited the feeders regularly, mostly melting aways into the small Scot's Pine when disturbed.
Blackcaps were traditionally a summer visitor to the UK, wintering in Iberia and West Africa. However, for quite a while now, birds from Central Europe have developed a new migration route, heading northwest to the UK, where they take advantage of food put out in gardens for birds. This avoids a much more hazardous southerly migration route, which would have involved the Alps and Sahara in some cases. The birds wintering in Britain have been found to arrive back on their breeding grounds earlier than those heading south and breed with other British winterers. This has ensured this new strategy has persisted.
This is the first Blackcap I have seen in our little garden here in Bishopthorpe, following on from a male seen by my family last winter.
Fraulein Monchsgrasmucke. A direct flight from the nearest part of Germany to Bishopthorpe would be c325 miles. Not too far as the Blackcap flies.
Thursday 7 January 2021
Full-on finch fest in the garden right now, providing welcome colour to the winter scene. A pair of Bullfinches have been dropping in since the New Year and I finally managed some pics. They are super-shy and retreat into cover at the first sign of trouble. Great to see good numbers of Greenfinches too which are starting to bounce-back after their population crash linked to trichomoniasis transmitted through dirty bird feeders.
Wednesday 6 January 2021
It was to be an unusual Mike Clegg Memorial Yorkshire Bird Race this year. Due to Covid restrictions, the only way the race could take place was if we avoided the use of cars, to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Therefore, the new rules allowed you to take part on foot, or by bike. This conferred another benefit of course, of being far better for the environment. Teams of one were permitted, so this was what I opted to do.
This year we were/are raising money to buy satellite tags to put on Hen Harriers in order to be able to track this species which is being heavily persecuted by criminals working for shooting estates.
With snow and ice in the previous days, I was a little apprehensive as I set foot outside into the dark and cold pre-dawn. Sure enough, the pavements and road outside my door were coated with a veneer of transparent evil: black ice! This was going to make cycling 'interesting'. My plan was to try and nail a few tricky birds which I knew to be in and around Bishopthorpe and then head east along the York to Selby Cycletrack to Riccall and then the Lower Derwent Valley.
First up, Grey Partridge. There is a small population of this much-declined gamebird just south of the village and they frequently call just as the first suggestion of dawn is made in the eastern sky. Sure enough, within a moment or two of arriving at the site, the characteristic creaky sneeze of a Grey Partridge added itself on to my list in third place, behind Robin and Blackbird.
The view at dawn from the cycletrack at Bishopthorpe (on a nice day!).
I headed down the cycletrack to the iron bridge over the River Ouse, keeping my ears peeled for Little Owl, or anything else interesting. This is where my plans started to falter. The cycletrack was like a skating rink! I could not walk on it without nearly falling flat on my face. I pushed my bike on to the verge and struggled along the frozen muddy grass. I had five and a half miles of this to do to reach Riccall - no chance! It then began to sleet. Doh! Not to be deterred, I slipped and slid to the bridge. Within moments, a Kingfisher whistled as it hurtled upriver. Class. Not a guaranteed bird on bird race day. Two minutes later and the excited call of a Grey Wagtail drew my attention as it bounded overhead, wingbars flashing. Another really good bird and one that I often miss, despite being widespread round here. Redpolls and Siskins called overhead and Teal peeped from the flooded ings. The wintering Chiffchaff was 'hweeting' by the sewage works, still surviving despite the bitter conditions. As is often the case, wildlife lifted my spirits and I felt ready to take this on.
Next up, the Archbishop of York's palace grounds. I cycled up the road which was mostly ice free as it had been gritted. I arrived to find a tit flock bustling around the woodland edge, which gave me Long-tailed, Coal, Blue and Great. Right on cue, my target, a Nuthatch added its liquid voice to the melee. There was little else I was likely to find here, so I headed home. Apart from Little Owl and Goosander, I had nailed all my early targets, so full of renewed enthusiasm, I picked up my scope and bags and headed east. My wife and kids just looked at me as if I was barmy...
News came through that birding mate Adam had fallen on ice and broken his scope- nightmare! There was no way I could risk the cycletrack. A new plan was hastily made, to bike along the back roads, through Naburn to Stillingfleet and then on to the A19, where I could gun down to Barlby and then turn for North Duffield. This would add a few miles on to my journey, but at least I might arrive in one piece!
The ride was hard but the road was fine and I added Skylark, Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer, Mistle Thrush and Bullfinch to my tally. All good birds on bird race day. As I went up and over the cycletrack near Escrick I made a snap decision to drop down on to the cycletrack as I just didn't fancy a long ride on the busy and fast A19. Getting on was not easy! The access ramp was like an ice slide, my bike overtook me and I had to drop it. It rapidly slipped down the steep slope and into the brambles at the bottom. I looked away and couldn't help a little giggle. I then traipsed through the brambles - the only safe descent- to retrieve it from the bottom. I was hoping the rain would have thawed some of the ice, but apparently not. I headed slowly east along the ice road towards Riccall on a deserted track: no Sunday morning joggers or bikers today. Near Riccall, I met a lone dog walker who told me to watch out for the ice as she'd already fallen over three times!
The ice road to Riccall
By sticking close to the edge of the track I was in a good place to fall on to the grass, or even better get some tyre purchase if I began to slide. This tactic worked well and I limped into Riccall without a disaster. The rain stopped adding to the relief I felt as I finally rolled out on to the grippy surface of the A19. At last! Another mile up the road, I hung a left and then headed up the road to North Duffield ('just' four more miles). Sadly, there were no gulls near the airfield which I was hoping for to give me an excuse for a rest and maybe add a few good birds to my list.
Ticking off Whooper Swans just past North Duffield Carrs, I u-turned and went back to the reserve. A check of my watch showed I'd done 15 miles already, not too bad, but I was feeling shattered. The three birders in the hide hadn't seen much of note but there was still plenty of species I'd not seen yet to be ticked off.
I checked a small flock of Teal resting on the ice a few hundred metres away and was gobsmacked to see the vertical white breast stripe of a Green-winged Teal sitting among them! Kapow! A nice chestnut and green head lacking any yellow borders, uniform dark grey flanks- all spot-on. Ironically, on the bird race list it counted no more than the Wigeon it was sitting next to! You'd think it would be worth two at least...
Green-winged Teal among its Euro cousins.
I put the news out and carried on birding. Pintail, Stonechat, Marsh Harrier, Golden Plover, Ruff, Redshank, Dunlin, Shelduck and an unexpected Willow Tit on the feeders next to the hide, were all welcome additions to my growing list.
Time was getting on, so having taken on some energy and running out of birds to tick, I took to the saddle again, heading back to North Duff, then up the road to Skipwith. The ride was lucrative, with two different Marsh Tits and Great Spotted Woodpecker being the highlights.
Up the road to Thorganby and I really hit the wall. I don't think I'd eaten enough at the Carrs to replenish my lost calories and I felt pretty shaky. I stopped for a Tunnocks caramel wafer and a quick drink. This gave me a boost on to the village, where I had lunch proper, whilst scoping the ings. Three Pink-footed Geese were on the floodbank, but I couldn't find any White-fronts or Barnacles. I moved on to the Thorganby platform and another 65ish Pinks flew over, heading north.
No sign of the regular Little Owl here, sadly, so I moved on to Bank Island and hooked up with Duncan Bye. The next two hours were enjoyable and relaxing birding at Bank and overlooking Wheldrake Ings which was teeming with birds.
Sadly flooding prevented access and no doubt cost me a few extra species. Nevertheless, I added on about ten more species, with a female Goosander flying north being an unexpected highlight along with a gorgeous Barn Owl which emerged from its roost early.
I was too exhausted to ride the eight miles back to Bishopthorpe so rang Vicky to come and rescue me, for which I was very grateful! I ended the day on 86 species, which equalled my previous solo effort in the York area, but that was done with a car. The Young Upstarts (Chris Gomersall, Tim Jones, Ollie Metcalfe and Jack Ashton-Booth) put in an impressive effort riding 33 miles and recording 96 species - really brilliant!
I missed several 'easy' birds, partly due to the freezing conditions and partly due to a lack of time and energy!! It was great fun nevertheless and collectively we have raised over £5,000 for Hen Harriers - brilliant. Big thanks to all the messages of support I received during the day and to all the people who donated to such a worthy cause.
Same again next year?
Saturday 2 January 2021
It snowed quite heavily mid-morning. The ground was iron-hard following a bitter night and was soon carpeted in soft white. A hush fell over the local birds, as if they were pondering what to do next. I paused midway through undecorating our Christmas tree to gaze in wonder as the flakes drifted down. A little later and out in the suddenly monochrome garden the feeders went crazy. Yesterday's Bullfinch reappeared briefly, but was put off my the melee of over 30 Goldfinches and some rather brash Greenfinches. A Fieldfare dropped in and set about an apple. They only seem to rock up when there is snow on the ground.
A little later, the lure of loafing gulls dragged me out to the LDV. Sadly, besides a rather forlorn-looking adult Herring Gull, there was no sign of the flock, so I made do with searching the distant Whooper Swan herd on the fields behind Derwent Cottage Farm for the equally lonesome Bewick's Swan. After a while I picked out the slightly smaller, shorter-necked Bewick, complete with cute face and mostly-black bill. I walked a little up the road towards the farm to get a slightly closer view. Minutes later, a truck containing a furious farmer hurtled down the track towards me. I braced myself for the bollocking which I received right on cue. I was told in no uncertain terms to leave. Oops.
Tail between my legs, I retreated to the safety of North Duffield Carrs and chat with birding mates. A Little Grebe was on the river, not a common bird in the York area in winter. Small numbers of Dunlins picked hopelessly at the frozen floodwater. A thaw won't come soon enough for these guys.
Tomorrow is the annual Mike Clegg Memorial Bird Race. It will be even more memorable this year, as the race is going ahead though on foot or bike only! I am opting for the latter....eek!
Friday 1 January 2021
After spending New Year's Eve on Zoom, I hit the hay strategically sober and early, so I could get up and out at dawn, ready to kick off my 2021 birding. The day began milder than the recent trend, so I headed up to Castle Howard to see what was occurring. No sign of any Hawfinches at the arboretum, but a Crossbill flew over chipping excitedly and plenty of other woodland birds got themselves on to my new yearlist. On to the still mostly-frozen lake. A Cetti's Warbler scolded from the reedbed near the gate, which was annoyingly still locked. Nevertheless, a good start. The patch of open water was thronged with birds and as I scanned I suddenly noticed two Otters running along the bank behind the throng! Nuts! I have never expected to see Otters here, so this was a real surprise. Sadly they scampered off into the reeds and disappeared, but left me beaming; a lovely treat to start 2021. Several Mandarins were loafing under the trees, and two handsome drake Goosanders were the star birds among the wildfowl.
I headed into the LDV, to North Duffield Carrs. The ings were mostly frozen too, and water was pouring out of the Derwent on to the flood meadows. Plenty of birds about, including two Marsh Harriers, over 50 Dunlin and three Stonechats.
Happy New Year to you all!
2020, a year unlike any other any of us have ever experienced. A year full of change, tragedy and heroism. Wildlife-wise it has been spectacular, with many of us reconnecting with the nature on our doorsteps, a comforting lifeline that has helped us get through.
I could talk about Humpback Whales, the Bearded Vulture, my Red-rumped Swallow, rescuing sheep out of ditches and planting trees. But as the last few minutes tick by, my mind is on the tough times many people close to me have endured in this troubled year. Let's hope 2021 brings peace to us all and light at the end of this terrible tunnel.
So, as a Grey Partridge creaked unseen in the twilight south of Bishopthorpe last night, I said so long to 2020, a sad goodbye to Europe, and kept my fingers firmly crossed for a happier 2021. Stay safe, folks and thanks for your support.