Wednesday 24 February 2021

Northbound Whoopers

The first party of northbound Whooper Swans paused at Acaster Church Ings yesterday. Made up of four adults and four juveniles - presumably two families - these birds are likely to have spent the winter on the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire/Norfolk and are now making their spring journey back up to Iceland. Rising spring temperatures seems to be their cue to leave their wintering grounds, with most birds dropping in during mid- March. In recent days, we've had a plume of warm southerly air which has clearly got our Icelandic visitors itching to get home!

Meanwhile, in our little garden pond, at least 16 Frogs have made an appearance turning the usually calm waters into a bubbling, swirling sex-fest. A Starling pair has taken up residence in the nestbox I put up a couple of years ago on our next door neighbour's house. 

Meanwhile #2, the Bullfinch pair have been back on the feeders this morning. I think they feel sunflower hearts are junk food, so only pop in every now and again for a bit of a treat.

Sunday 21 February 2021

The Birds Keep Coming!

The first two Curlews were back on Acaster Church Ings this morning, along with 12 Gadwall and two drake Wigeon.

With the southerly gale having abated overnight, I braved the ladder to install the pair of Swift nestboxes I had purchased from the RSPB under the eaves. I also put up a Starling nestbox I'd built as a present for our neighbour. Both of our neighbour's now have Starling boxes, so hopefully the local stinkers will be happy this spring!

This afternoon, I took my exercise strolling down to Wheldrake to do the roost. I had a quick look at four Smew nearby; a solitary redhead - possibly a first-winter male, and a party of three, a cracking drake and two females. The latter group flew off high south and seemed to land somewhere to the south of Aughton Church. 

 Smew. Honest!

The roost was collossal again, though I struggled to find anything beyond yesterday's white Black-headed Gull. A drake Scaup was with the Tufted Duck flock which was my first locally this year. Chris picked up an adult Mediterranean Gull flying in which conveniently landed at the front of the flock. We walked back to the sound of Curlews coming into roost and Song Thrushes singing. All in all, a pretty amazing weekend to be birding close to home!

Top: Scaup, with Tufted Ducks. Bottom and below, adult Med Gull, with Common and Black-headed Gulls.

Another Velvet Morning/Top Gulls

Took a walk with the family down the River Ouse to Acaster Selby, to exercise the dog. To my suprise, a distant dark duck on the river by Moreby Hall could only be one thing: the Velvet Scoter! The bird hadn't been seen since it was flushed from Wharfe Ings, near Ryther on Tuesday, so I was shocked to see it still here. 

The bird was not bothered by my presence and I wish I'd brought my DLSR. Nevertheless, it was great to watch through the bins at close range and I managed a bit of phone-binning! 

 Bit Blair-witch this, but it's a Velvet Scoter on the Ouse! Nuts!


Also noted was a Chiffchaff in riverside willows near Acaster Selby and four Curlews on the ings. c500 Fieldfares were in paddocks on the east side of Acaster Airfield and a pair of Stonechats were present too.


Late afternoon, I paid homage to the Slav at Bank Island again, as it is a great little bird. Today, the sun obligingly came out and I stared into it's ruby-red disco eye. How does it see the world through those?!

Down to the ings, still a waders job. A banging gull roost tonight, with two spanking adult Iceland Gulls and four Mediterranean Gulls. There were similar numbers of small gulls in the roost, c20,000, but larger numbers of big gulls, with c100. No sign of any Lesser Black-backs surprisingly. Also of note, a white Black-headed Gull. 

Above: Adult Iceland Gull. This one came in reasonably early and had only a little head-streaking. 

Above: Adult Iceland Gull. This was the second bird, which came in late, hence the poor quality phone-scoped video. Much heavier head-streaking on this bird.

Above: First-winter Mediterranean Gull #1

Above: First-winter Med Gull #2. A much more advanced bird, with only one dark tertial apparent.

Above: Second-winter Med Gull (at the back of the flock). These can be mind-blowingly Black-headed Gull-like!

Above: Adult winter Med Gull

Above: Black-headed Gull. I see birds like this from time to time, with a lack of pigment in the head and upperparts, although the bare parts seem normal and the black in the primaries is still visible, so not an albino.

Spring roost

Spent the morning of my day off working up at Ripon City Wetlands, guiding a fencing contractor. We are planning to put some cattle on the site in late-summer, to improve the marginal wetland habitat - the 'blue zone' for plants and invertebrates and therefore, birds. Wandering around, I noted three Jack Snipe with 18 Common Snipe, 11 Oystercatchers and a Cetti's Warbler. 

Later, I found two more Jack Snipe on Bishopthorpe Ings and 42 Common Snipe, plus five Teal. Good counts for here.

Went up to Wheldrake last thing for the gull roost. It is still only accessible in waders due to the deep flooding and the hides are shut. c20,000 small gulls in the roost and only a handful of large gulls, the best of which were four adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls, looking splendid in their spring finery. When these guys start heading north, I know spring is coming. c40 Curlews roosting on one of the islands of meadow emerging like atolls in the sea of floodwater.

Friday 19 February 2021

Slavonian Grebe

Had another look at the Bank Island Slavonian Grebe late afternoon. It was much closer than earlier i the week and actively feeding, though the strong southerly wind and leaden skies dulled the bird's ruby red eye.

Thursday 18 February 2021

Food gap

As food runs out in the countryside, some birds struggle a bit until the glut in food arrives with warmer spring weather. Reed Buntings are one of those birds that can suffer during this food gap and they often turn up our little garden at this time. This male dropped in briefly to feed yesterday, under the feeders with the local Chaffinches. The feather edges on his head hadn't quite worn away to reveal his jet black hood, but he was pretty dapper anyway. In other news, 12 Goosanders on Church Ings, plus 10 Gadwall, 4 Teal, 3 Tufted Ducks and 2 Pochards. A pair of Oystercatchers arrived earlier this week and are noisily stating their claim to the ings. I look forward to welcoming the local Curlews back any day now.

Reed Bunting looking classy in front of larch lap fence.

 Goosander on t'Ouse

Monday 15 February 2021

Post-work Slavonian

A quick dash out after work for my daily exercise was enlivened by a Slavonian Grebe, the first I've seen in the local area. Typically tiny and black and white, with bright white cheeks and different 'feel' to Black-necked, lacking that species' jaunty upturned beak and steep forehead. A rare bird in the York area with less than 20 records in the last 50 years and a nice find by Dave Waudby.

Sunday 14 February 2021

Valentine Otters


A lot of squeaking by the River Ouse during a Valentine's walk with Vicky sounded like a young Otter, and to our delight, we spotted a pair of Otters on the other side of the river. After a bit, they climbed out on to the bank and lolloped along, occasionally stopping to check some stuff out. They dropped back in to the icy water and made their way under the iron bridge. I followed them for a few hundred meters, the cub occasionally calling Mum with bouts of squeaking, when he/she got separated. I could track their progress by the panicked Mallards erupting in a blizzard of quacks from the riverside Willows. They disappeared near the marina and I left them to their adventure.


The water has dropped now, leaving sheets of ice hanging suspended on the ings, a glass veneer, creaking in the wind. Occasionally, a section collapsed with a noise like a person crashing through a patio window. Spring is arriving tonight, so this will all disappear.

Yesterday, we walked from Bishopthorpe up the river to York, seeing little except for a lone Chiffchaff at Middlethorpe. Later, I walked south to Acaster Selby. There was no sign of the Velvet Scoter, but a female Goldeneye was nice to see here and I counted 26 Snipe feeding on the ings. It was interesting to see the Snipe pushing through the ice and then probing the soil in the hole they'd created. Perhaps the ice had acted as a blanket, leaving unfrozen soil below.


A big mixed flock of Redwings and Fieldfares were feeding on the edge of the ice, buffeted by the strong, bitter wind. I was relieved to see them feeding well too, finding plenty of worms to eat in the patches of thawed ground; hopefully enough to get them through the night. The thaw is coming, just hold on one more night...


Friday 12 February 2021

Lockdown Velvet!

The pair of Lesser Redpolls showed up this morning, feeding on Silver Birch seeds again and snubbing the various feeders adorning the very same trees. Cheek.

Work was pretty hectic today, with meetings through lunch leaving me with barely ten minutes to drag the dog round the block, before getting back in front of the screen for the next meeting. 

Out of the blue, Duncan rang to say a Velvet Scoter had been found by Andrew Schofield on Acaster South Ings, just south of home! What?! This is mega, to say the least, with only two previous York records, the most recent being way back in 1994! 

I stopped typing mid-email, grabbed my gear and was watching this errant seaduck bobbing about a few minutes later. Nuts! 


Acaster South Ings is within a lovely loop of the Ouse, just south of the weir at Naburn. When inundated by floodwater, it can attract good numbers of wildfowl in winter and has had the occasional good bird over the years. In summer, is is a beautiful MG4 meadow, haunted by the calls of Curlews and peppered with a diverse mix of wild flowers and grasses. Today though, the flood was frozen with only a small ice-free patch in the middle. Upon this, was one duck, a Velvet Scoter. 

The bird was quite active and after a bit of preening stood up in the water, revealing a white belly, showing it to be an immature. The bill sported some pale markings that can be seen in the top pic at least, so I assume this is a first-winter male, though I need to check this out to be sure. 

 Yet again, an unexpected rare bird turning up close to home during this long, bleak winter lockdown and a massive boost that will see me through 'til spring and hopefully happier times. 

Back home, I finished off my email and carried on with work. As dusk gathered in the garden, Blackbirds hungrily devoured the remaining apples and were joined by a handsome Fieldfare, a nice finale to the day.

Sunday 7 February 2021


Lacking a little motivation today, with lockdown wearing thin and deep water covering all of my local birding spots. The icy blast from the east continued with snow flurries on an off all day. 

In the afternoon, Chris Gomersall found three drake Common Scoters at Clifton, just a couple of miles from home. Just the tonic to lift my flat mood, so I headed round there with Vicky for an afternoon walk along the floodbank. After a bit, the three inky black ducks drifted into view, loafing on the flood just beyond a line of inundated Oaks. They seemed quite happy in their atypical environment, with bouts of preening and splashing about and the occasional characteristic neck-jerking wingflap. My mood bounced back. Nature is good like that!

Common Scoters. A scarce bird in the York area and pretty much unknown in February, with most birds recorded on spring migration, often in April. 

Askham Bog Lake

Everywhere seems to be underwater in the York area, Askham Bog included. I had a ride up there yesterday, to have a look for Woodcock, that peculiar wading bird that roosts by day in the shelter of the woods, before heading out to feed by night, on nearby farm fields. A Siberian blast from the east had caused an exodus of Woodcocks from the continent, many of which had reportedly made landfall at Flamborough Head, although sadly the remains of many that didn't quite make it, were found washed up on the strandline.

The Bog is usually a reliable place for Woodcocks in winter although the extensive flooding wasn't going to help me find any. The usual places I look for them was about a metre underwater and their legs are not that long! Unfortunately, neither were mine and in places the water overtopped my wellies, which was less than pleasant! I waded across Near Wood to a few areas I knew were slightly higher and perhaps less waterlogged. Sure enough, this was where they were hiding and after a while I located  five birds. I found three roosting among bramble patches and flushed two more at close quarters. Woodcock don't seem to flush unless you pause every so often. If you walk straight past, they will sit tight, but if you stop, they seem to lose their nerve after a few moments and erupt out of their unseen roosting places, and fly off through the trees.  After a pretty soggy tramp around, the heavy rain, blustery wind and cold wet feet dampened by enthusiasm and I headed back home for lunch.

One of the fen meadows, looking more like a lake today.

Monday 1 February 2021

Tough Month - Keep the Faith!

January 2021 was a tough month and I am glad it is over. 

Following a gruelling but lovely Mike Clegg Bird Race which showed what can be found within a cycle ride of home (Green-winged Teal anyone?!) another full national lockdown was imposed. The UK reached the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths due to Covid since the pandemic began, a staggering figure masking the true horror and suffering those individuals endured and the legacy of pain left with their familes and friends, not to mention the exhaustion and stress of all those who cared for them as they neared the end. 

The kids went back to school, adding additional pressure to our working day and a lot of anxiety about their happiness and wellbeing. They miss their friends immensely. With the first review of our imprisonment set for the distant date of 8th March, spring seemed a long, long way away. Even I began to feel a bit dis-spirited.

Unlike the first lockdown back in spring 2020, dreary cold weather kept us largely inside during January and when we did venture out, deep flooding along the Ouse reduced the walks available locally. Nevertheless, as usual, nature provided lots of colour and inspiration and a glimmer of better times to come. Towards the end of the month, the BBC's Winterwatch lifted all of our spirits with the wonders of wildlife from around the UK. 

After a pair of gorgeous Bullfinches graced the garden in the first week of the month, a female Blackcap, presumably from Germany, spent most of her time in and around the feeders. She favoured sunflower hearts (to my surprise) and was last seen on the 29th, having brightened many of my days staring out of window whilst working from home. I will keep a beady eye out, to see if she reappears before the winter is out. It would be nice to see her again to wish her well.


A few miles away, the first Siberian Lesser Whitethroat for York turned up on Adam Firth's feeder in Elvington, somewhat eclipsing my Blackcap! This bird was ringed and after a lot of patience and effort, Adam managed to confirm the ring number. It turned out that Will Scott had trapped this bird at Bempton in October and he had a nice in-hand photo to boot! Absolutely brilliant. Of course, the lockdown meant I couldn't pay homage. Nevermind...

Wandering around the local area through occasional snow and frequent rain yielded a Green Woodpecker on Acaster Airfield,  a smart Little Owl and a fine flock of Redpolls at Naburn.

The floodwater on Acaster Church Ings proved a bit deep for most ducks, though held a handful of Goosanders, two Pochards, up to a dozen Gadwalls and a few Wigeon and Teal. A pair of handsome Pintail were present on a couple of occasions with a male Shoveler the highlight. 

By the end of the month, the days were noticeably longer and nature's volume had noticeably increased to about a 3. I heard my first Blackbird singing on the 11th, which was quite early really and yesterday morning, Dunnocks, Great Tits and Song Thrushes were all joining in. The local Woodpigeons, Starlings and Coal Tits have all been tuning up too, when the sun comes out. Right on cue for the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, the pair of Bullfinches, having been absent since the first week of the month, showed up and got themselves on the list!

So, February has arrived, the last and shortest month of winter. With early signs of spring all around, there is much to look forward to, not least the decline of Covid and the easing of restrictions. Hopefully the floods will have reduced by the end of the month and we will be able to access the LDV again, with our new found freedom. 

I read on Twitter this morning that Swallows, House Martins (pic below Ron Knight) and White Storks are coming in from Africa across the Straits of Gibralter right now. I better get my Swift nestboxes in position!

Keep the faith, folks, little by little, Spring is coming!