Saturday 25 September 2021

Flash Caspian

I've been plugging away at Acaster Airfield flash as often as I can, but the hoped-for scarce wader hasn't rocked up yet. This morning there were c50 Lapwings and a single Golden Plover in the field and absolutely zilch waders on the flash. A few gulls were loafing, including about 20 Lesser Black-backs, a couple of Herrings and, to my surprise, a stonking adult Caspian Gull! This really was a nice surprise. I have been checking for Yellow-legged Gulls which are a late summer feature in the area, but I wasn't expecting this. 

Pectoral Seconds

Went up to Wheldrake on Thursday night with my sister. The Pectoral Sandpiper was showing well on the pool, along with a single Green Sandpiper and about 80 Teal. The dull evening light didn't improve my ability to phonescope the Pec, but it was great to enjoy good views at leisure.


Tuesday 21 September 2021

Catching the Pec Wave

There has been a big influx of Pectoral Sandpipers into the UK in the last couple of weeks. There have been a handful of records in Yorkshire and I was very hopeful that one would turn up. Today, Adam Firth found one at the pool at Wheldrake Ings, so I shot down at lunchtime to see it. The bird was still present on arrival, a very smart juvenile. This is the ninth record for the York area. Also noted, one Green Sandpiper, eight Snipe and one Little Egret. 

I was in a bit of a rush and the strong sunshine was creating a bit of a haze, so my pics don't do this smart bird justice. My smartphone adapter went wrong too which didn't help, which is why the video is a disaster!


York Guillemot

As mentioned in an earlier post, there has been a large wreck of auks on the northeast coast, largely Guillemots and Razorbills. Corpses have been tested by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, but at the time of writing no cause has been identified. It seems the birds are emaciated, so possibly a lack of food could be the issue, although fish do appear to be abundant right now. Disease could be a cause, although avian flu has not yet been detected. Many of the auks are loafing close inshore or even entering rivers which is clearly out of character. Recently (11th September), this poorly Guillemot was discovered on the River Wharfe upstream of Cawood. It was only viewable from private land and the farmer only allowed access for a small number of local birders. Unfortunately, the bird was not present the next day so presumably died. 

Guillemot, River Wharfe. The first live record in the York area since October 1997. One was found dead in 1999. 

Sunday 19 September 2021

Check your pics

Minke Whale off Staithes Harbour, photographed from Cowbar

A quieter day out at sea today, with five hard-won Minke Whales preceded by one feeding close inshore mid-morning. The five Brents were still in the harbour and later, they flew over us heading north, presumably returning to Northumberland. The weather was lovely - too lovely for seabirds really - but we had a great day nevertheless. A flock of six Shovelers heading south was a nice surprise. Later, one of our clients, Matt (@msteaneLUFC), checked his pics and noticed that the lead bird was a Pintail! This one slipped through in the field, reminding me that it is always worth checking your pics!

Shovelers and Pintail
Sleepy Grey Seal
Two of our Minke Whales

Friday 17 September 2021

What's going on with the auks?

I had an enjoyable day leading a Yorkshire Coast Nature Whale and Seabird pelagic out of Staithes today. The day started well, with five Pale-bellied Brent Geese in the harbour, and rather randomly, a Nuthatch in weeds on the clifftop, followed by a Wheatear at Cowbar. Out to sea, we got great views of up to 11 Minke Whales, one Harbour Porpoise, a possible Osprey (very distant), Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, Teal, Wigeon, Common Scoters and Red-throated Divers. 

One of the Minkes, named Finbarr by Skipper Sean, had a stumpy fin. On checking the pics, it seems it has had the top cut off, presumably by a ship's propellor. A lucky escape as otherwise it seemed fine.

Two of today's Minke Whales off Staithes. The top one, Finbarr, with his damaged dorsal fin, and the lower image of a whale with an undamaged fin.

Sadly, a feeling of melancholy remained with me during the day due to the sight of dozens of dead Razorbills and smaller numbers of Guillemots, a Shag and a couple of Herring Gulls. I am not sure of the cause of this, but I presume it is avian flu. It was really sad to see.

Alive and dead Razorbills.
A small skein of Teal whipping south across the sea.

Thursday 16 September 2021

There goes the Fea!


A couple of weeks ago, there were great conditions for interesting seabirds to be found in the North Sea. 

A big high pressure system was spinning birds out of the Atlantic and into the mouth of the North Sea, where the northerly wind pushed them south and onto the Yorkshire coast. Among the commoner species, lots of Long-tailed Skuas and Sooty Shearwaters were picked up by seawatchers as they headed back north, reorientating themselves back to the ocean. Among the movement, Fea's-type Petrels began to be seen. Ever since seeing Desertas Petrels in Madeira last September, I was hooked on these charismatic Pterodroma petrels. Their aerial prowess, great rarity and charismatic looks are a package to excite all seawatchers and the chance to see one close to home has caused me many sleepless nights, fantasising about picking one of these up as it carved north past Flamborough Head. 

In the North Sea, birds are currently recorded as 'Fea's-type Petrels', as distinguishig the three closely-related petrels (Zino's, Fea's and Desertas) is very difficult without really close views and lots of experience. Throw into the mix the Soft-plumaged Petrel from the South Atlantic which proved its occurrence in Yorkshire waters earlier this year, and you have a complicated identification puzzle. This is why most are simply classed as 'Fea's types'.

So, to the first episode in this tale...

One morning in the middle of this northerly spell, I was busy doing chores at home and suddenly noticed a message that a Fea's-type had gone north past Flamborough Head late morning. Blimey, if I left now, I could head to Cowbar, near Staithes, along a very familiar route and possibly intercept the bird. I didn't have much on that day, so checking I hadn't overlooked any family commitments, I got the green light, grabbed my gear and scrambled for the car. Birdo mate Mark Hawkes checked out timings and trajectories and said if I got to Cowbar by 1.30pm I should be there in time to see it fly past. This was going to be close, but I had to try.  These birds pass by so rarely that I was never ever likely to be present when one was found, so attempting to twitch one seemed the only option. 

Off I went. To sum up the journey to Cowbar is easy: it was a nightmare! Roadworks, caravans, sheep on the road, ice cream vans; you couldn't make it up. Nevertheless, the abbey at Whitby hove into view before 1pm, so there was still a chance. I arrived on site at 1.25pm and ran to the cliff edge, where I found another dozen birders already in position. Many had become distracted by an adult and two juvenile Sabine's Gulls in among  a large flock of Kittiwakes feeding offshore. This was understandable, as they are scarce birds in Yorkshire and pretty lovely too. They would have to wait however, as the Fea's was due any moment. It had been reported from Bempton and then Filey after the first sighting, so it was maintaining its trajectory, hugging the coast. Worryingly, there was no report from Long Nab at Burniston, another great seawatching site. Was it still heading this way? 

Then, at 1.40pm the message came that it had been seen heading north at Old Nab, Staithes. This was the other side of Staithes harbour, the south. Birders there must be looking at the same patch of sea pretty much. The crowd went silent. All scopes swung south, scrutinising every movement, every bird that appeared over the sea, the Sabs Gulls forgotten. Surely, with all these birders looking, the Fea's couldn't get past undetected? But it did. Tense seconds turned into minutes and then quarter of an hour had passed by. We had missed it. How was that possible? If I'd been on my own I could have understood it - there was a lot of sea to look at. But somehow, it had shot past without anybody seeing it. I felt dismayed and distraught. So close....the news came a little later that birders at Hartlepool had seen it and then reports started to rain in from further north as the bird powered into the wind. I was gutted not to have seen it. But I had learnt that it was possible to intercept a Fea's, or indeed any rare seabird, from York.


Roll forward to Sunday 12th September. I had had a fantastic day leading a York Birding Club trip around Flamborough. An early seawatch from the fog station had yielded two cracking Pomarine Skuas, c30 Red-throated Divers, Sooty Shearwaters, Bonxies and Arctic Skuas. The Old Fall Loop was quiet, but we pulled out a Redstart and Garden Warbler in the Bay Brambles, which was something. On to Bempton, we headed along the clifftop to Buckton, where after a while we managed good but brief views of the Green Warbler - cracking! I had a top laugh with the gang, including Steve Farley, who had me in stitches throughout most of the day. A couple of the group went off to look for the Black-browed Albatross, which hadn't been seen since early morning. We headed over and shortly, Duncan Bye refound the bird as it flew back in to Staple Newk. He was made up as he hadn't seen the bird before. We got some nice views of the albatross as it circled the arch before landing on the cliff out of sight. After a while, I decided that this had been quite a remarkable day on the Yorkshire coast, so it was time to head home.

 I got as far as Bridlington. In a traffic jam near the 'Hume's Lights', I checked my phone and to my amazement, read that a Fea's-type Petrel had gone north close in (!) past the fog station at Flamborough, only moments ago! Oh no - if I had only stayed at Bempton a little longer. Earlier on, after seeing the Green Warbler, I had even considered going back to the fog station for another seawatch as the wind strength had increased... Anyway, nevermind the 'what ifs', I made a snap decision to U-turn out of the traffic queue and head north for Scarborough. Seeking the advice of good birding mates (thanks Mark, Rich, Dunc) I decided to go to Long Nab, as it seemed the birders there manage to connect with most good seabirds that go up the coast. No further reports came through as I headed north; nothing from Bempton or Filey. Had it gone back out to sea? The Sunday afternoon traffic was a nightmare, only adding to my stress.


I pulled into the car park just behind a pair of dawdling dogwalkers, who I had followed closely from the village. I greeted them as pleasantly as I could, tumbling out of the car, all coats and optics. They just looked at me bemused. I raced off down the track to the clifftop where I could see another birder already in position intently scoping the sea. It was Chris Bell, and he informed me that there was no sign of the petrel so far. I started scanning the sea, primarily looking far out. A few Red-throats flew south. 

After a bit I picked up a low-flying dark bird, heading rapidly north. To my surprise, it suddenly cut a big tightly curved arc up over the waves and down again - this looked really interesting and the adrenaline rush hit me like a train! I told Chris what I had seen and a few moments later, he suddenly announced 'there it is', as the bird arced up out of a wave trough again. Surely this was the Fea's? It was really distant, but that flight just screamed Pterodroma. We hadn't managed to see a white belly, or indeed any other features, but that flight style was just super distinctive and it just felt right. We lost the bird. I swung my scope north to try and catch it again, but that was it. I briefly saw a bird low down over the waves, but again only briefly. I felt hollow and a bit perplexed. I talked to Chris who agreed that this was likely to have been the bird and so I decided to put out a message to give encouragement to the birders stationed further north. I desperately wanted to see this bird and had to tell my brain not to insert things I hadn't seen into my memory. It had been a distant, brief view of what might have been the bird. That was all. But it was still an electrifying moment. This had been an exciting and tantalising end to a fab day on the east coast and I couldn't possibly feel disappointment, just shattered at the emotional strain of it all. The bird had flirted with me, just enough to keep me interested and left me desperately waiting for the next chapter.

Shortly, Long Nab birder Nick Addey turned up. It was great to meet him, and Chris for that matter. I left them to it, and headed home.

All pics are Desertas Petrels taken in Madeira last year.

Also, it turns out that 'Fea's' is pronounced 'Fay-ers' as the species is named after an Italian, Leonardo Fea, so my play on the Doves song, 'There goes the fear', in the title of this blog, is phonetically incorrect! And I also pinched this pun from top mate Dunc Poyser, so it is all his fault really -only kidding man. I do pronounce it Fears myself!!

Saturday 11 September 2021

Buckton Green Warbler!

Yorkshire is having an amazing summer for rare birds and news of a Green Warbler at Buckton added to the sublime birding scenes. This was a fantastic find by Mark Thomas who has created a wonderful oasis for migrant birds at this site just northwest of Bempton, only the ninth for Britain and the first for Yorkshire. After ringing, the bird was very elusive on Thursday afternoon and having spent the day as far away from the east coast as you can get at Ingleborough, I just couldn't face the twitch. The bird didn't depart overnight, so, after work, I headed east for a look. 

The bird had been showing off and on all day, so I was pleasantly surprised to find only about 30 birders on site. I recognised a couple of locals who told me they were watching the bird - I saw a movement, got my bins on it, just as it flew off - doh! A bright green and yellow streak....a good start, but more views were needed. I walked round to the southeast side and after ten minutes or so, picked up a Phyllosc in the taller Willows. It hopped to the front, showing a bright yellow face and supercilium and turned to show off bright green upperparts and a neat little wingbar. Hello! What a cracker, looking more like a miniature Wood Warbler than a Greenish Warbler. It zipped about actively, before melting away into the foliage, along with the two Willow Warblers it was hanging out with. 

Over the next hour, it showed every ten minutes or so, presumably tracking round a feeding circuit. A Pied Flycatcher and Redstart added to the scene. I chatted to mates and other birders, all of whom were stoked by this cracking bird, a species I never thought I would see anywhere in Britain, let alone in Yorkshire. At times, the bird showed out in the open on bare twigs, allowing me to have a crack at some ninja phonescoping... 

Later, I went to pay homage to the Black-browed Albatross, who, true to form, cleared off two minutes before I arrived...It then chucked it down, so I headed for a celebratory chippy tea and then home.


Down the Flash

5th - 6th September

I had a message from Andrew Schofield to say there were two juvenile Little Stints on the flash at Acaster Airfield, so after tea, I headed down there. Sure enough, the tiny migrant waders were picking along the feather-lined edge of the flash with a Dunlin. Class. With wader passage continuing, I headed down there early next morning and to my surprise, found that the stint count had increased to three, along with a Ruff. Later, Andrew located a Whinchat on the 'strip' a rough grassy area running along the runway past the flash. I went back after tea and saw the chat, a good bird for the York area away from the LDV.


Saturday 4 September 2021

Great White off Staithes!

So, 4 1/2 miles offshore from Staithes this morning and a Great White Egret flies past, heading east - i.e. further out. To say this was unexpected was an understatement, and possibly one of the wierdest birds I have seen whilst leading a Yorkshire Coast Nature Whale and Seabird Trip. The bird had been tracked up the coast earlier before turning right at Staithes and heading due east out to sea. Why? Who knows! 


Also, we enjoyed a close Minke Whale seen at about 6 miles, several Arctic Skuas and one Bonxie. Lots of ducks moving today, mostly Common Scoters and Teal, a few small flocks of waders and still plenty of Kittiwakes, Razorbills and terns hanging out feeding on the Herring shoals. 

We often retrieve discarded fishing gear and plastic litter while on these trips. Today, I hooked a large plastic container. It took a bit of lifting to get it out! It had been in the water a long time and hosted two fabulous Goose Barnacles, an absolutely class invertebrate that I have never seen in 'real life', definitely the highlight of the trip for me!