Monday 29 November 2021

Storm Arwen

The first named storm of the year, Arwen, came charging in from the north. She was not gentle, like her namesake elf, but an Arctic-born fury of galeforce winds, icy temperatures and heavy snow showers. York got off lightly, but elsewhere, powercuts and treefalls were commonplace and a large dump of snow happened across much of Yorkshire. 

An icy start.

I headed east to check for displaced seabirds at Flamborough Head and wasn't disappointed. The roads got worse as I climbed out of the Vale of York on to the Wolds. It was minus three degrees and the roads were snow-covered. I crawled into Bridlington in a heavy snow shower and with white-out conditions I almost turned round. I am glad I didn't as Flamborough was enjoying a different climate, being a balmy two degrees and largely snow-free. 

The seawatch started badly as a White-billed Diver flew north as I was getting out of my car. If my journey hadn't been hampered by snow and icy roads, I would have been in the hide with the other birders when it flew past. Bugger.

Anyway, not to be disspirited, I shivered through six hours or so, watching the heavy sea as birds headed north into the still-strong wind. The sea had abated largely since the biblical scenes of the day before, but it was still impressive. One of the Little Auks that landed bobbed like a cork and this was the only way it was managing to survive on the mountainous sea. 

The Seawatching Obs in a snow shower.

Divers were much in evidence today, with dozens of Red-throats heading north, or dropping in to feed. A single Black-throated, sporting a nice white flank patch passed by not long after my arrival and I saw seven Great Northerns lumber north during the seawatch. Sadly, the banana-billed behemoth failed to reappear. Several Pale-bellied Brent Geese flew past, one of which as totally puzzled as to its location and spent most of the day flying north only to turn back south minutes later, before repeating the whole performance. Some smart Long-tailed Ducks and Velvet Scoters were notched up, but eyes really were focussing on the auks. 

 Scoter flock. Spot the Velvet!

I saw ten Little Auks during the day, missing others that flew past unseen by me. We all tried hard to pull out a Brunnich's Guillemot from the hordes of Common Guillemots and Razorbills going past and on the sea, but we failed. A surprising number of Common Guilles had breeding plumage and I do wonder if this is what some of the reported Brunnich's actually were. I wasn't expecting so many in this plumage in late November, but then, I don't often seawatch this late in the season. Another surprise was the number of Puffins; I saw at least 20. A Snow Bunting and a couple of Starlings came in off the sea. How they survived a crossing in this weather I have no idea. 

Part Little Auk, part cork.

I checked South Landing for loafing auks without success and then headed back west, enjoying the clear roads thawed by the weak late-autumn sun.

Sunday 21 November 2021

Biking Local

 Swantail Ings

Sunny skies and occasional showers with a keen northwest wind today, blowing in much colder air than we've been used to. I headed out to Wheldrake by bike in an effort to start reducing my birding carbon footprint. 21 Fallow Deer near Crockey Hill along with a couple of Grey Partridges were reward enough for my efforts. Bank Island held three adult Whooper Swans which headed off south down the valley a little after 9am, leaving 120 Wigeon, a drake Shoveler, two Pintail and seven Shelduck. 90 Lapwings hosted two Ruff and there were plenty of Redwings flying about. I walked down to the Ings, but all was quiet, with little of note on the Pool. A Marsh Harrier was quartering the grasslands, flushing c200 Lapwings and another three Ruff. I walked back to Bank Island in a rain shower, watching a Red Kite circling slowly over the refuge. The cycle back into the northwester' was hard work, but invigorating. A little later I met my Mum for a walk round Askham Bog, which yielded 85 Siskins feedling busily in a large Alder, twittering away. 


Monday 15 November 2021


With the day off, I headed back to Flamborough Head, across the Wolds beset by thick fog. I descended onto the headland and the murk cleared somewhat, which was a relief. I spent some time with the Pallas's Warbler at the Golf Course bushes, which showed beautifully mid-morning, but always at a distance. After doing the Old Fall loop, I returned for another look and after almost giving up - it had become more elusive - the sprite suddenly appeared in a nearby bush as I ascended the steps. Sadly, my photography skills let me down, but through the bins, views were incredible and brought clear collective joy to the small group of birders present. 

Pallas's Warbler, with just a hint of lemony rump showing in the lower photo

The loop was rather quiet, with a Snow Bunting bouncing around over Cattlemere, a flighty Blackcap in the hedge nearby, 21 Curlews dropped into the sheep field and six Golden Plovers came in off the sea.  Yesterday's Long-tailed Ducks were still present off the cliffs, now escorted by two Velvet Scoters. One Woodcock departed the plantation, leaving it to four Goldcrests and a noisy Great Spotted Woodpecker , which moved up the hedge all the way to the steps then flew off towards the lighthouse. 

Velvet Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks. The left hand LTD is an adult female; I think the other is a first-winter female.

Ten miles, fourteen stripes

Sunday, 14th November

I walked a long way today. Ten miles, mostly in wellies is a bit of a killer, but it was well worth it. And that is nothing compared with how far most of the birds I saw had flown. Though none of them had wellies on. With more than a whiff of easterly wind, I started off at YWT Holmes Gut, Flamborough, which was hooching with birds. Four Woodcocks exploded clumsily out of the undergrowth, Fieldfares chacked from the Hawthorn bushes, whilst others hunted worms on the cattle-grazed pasture, with dark-beaked Blackbirds for company. Redwings accelerated out of the Gut and headed inland in flocks. Three Bramblings wheezed overhead.

I headed round the clifftop and into Thornwick Camp. It was a bit quieter, with a couple more Woodcock, a very flighty Chiffchaff, only two Goldcrests and some showy Bullfinches. I checked the bushes, trees and hedges thoroughly. And then checked them again.

I bumped into Johnny Mac, who was heading to the Outer Head across the fields, I hooked up with him and off we stomped. 

As luck would have it, two Pallas's Warblers, the iconic Siberian sprite were found as we approached the Outer Head and we were treated to great views of both birds, sporting the full fourteen stripes (crown stripe, two eyebrows, four wingbars x2). One of the birds was surprisingly vocal, perhaps it was a bit anxious by the presence of a couple of Chiffchaffs which were also calling frequently (or us, more likely). Pallas's Warblers seem to be much quieter than some of the other stripy Sibes. Yellow-browed Warbler, for instance, tend to call frequently. I have been lucky enough to many Pallas's Warblers over the years, but each one gives me the same thrill as the very first I saw back in the '80s at Cley. They are energetic balls of delight, zipping around the trees like miniature fireworks. Just gorgeous.

At the light faded, we headed round the Old Fall Loop, which yielded two Long-tailed Ducks with a Velvet Scoter on the sea, and half a dozen Goldcrests in the plantation.

Sunday 7 November 2021

A Tale of Two Flycatchers

Following last month's super record of a Taiga Flycatcher on the cliffs at Flamborough Head, it seemed incredible that a second bird had been found on Thursday last week, nearby at South Landing. Initial analysis of comparison photos seemed to indicate that this was the same bird, which on the one hand would make sense, but on the other also seemed remarkable. Firstly, where had the bird been hiding for the intervening 19 days, on a headland with not a lot of cover and a good number of very sharp birders? Also, it would seem very strange that an Eastern vagrant such as this would linger for this length of time in the peak of autumn migration. With another bird in Norway at the end of last week, it seems more likely that this is a second individual and whilst similarities can be found between comparison photos, some differences can also be found. We may never know the truth and either way, the tale of these two flycatchers is truly remarkable, and Flamborough Head has become the place to see this smart vagrant in the UK.

After a very busy week at work, the discovery of a Red-flanked Bluetail literally one hundred metres away from the flycatcher at South Landing proved too much of a temptation for me to bear. With the afternoon off, I headed east to Flamborough. A dozen or so birders were lined up on the path, grilling anything that moved on the woodland floor. It turned out that the Bluetail was really the only bird present here and it became clear that it was working a circuit, dropping on to the ground to pick insects from among the leaf litter, usually from the low branches of the trees. Very occasionally when spooked, it would fly higher up, before descending once trouble had passed. Viewing was tricky at times as the bird seemed to favour the far edge of the copse, although with patience and by kneeling down, the bird could be viewed easily. Dapper as ever, my hunch was this was a first winter male, as the cobalt tail and ample blue rump was much brighter than the bird I saw last year at Whitley Bay. At one point it was chased by a Robin, and it flew up high into a sycamore, calling once in alarm, a quite plaintive short whistle not unlike a Siberian Chiffchaff. 

Johnny Mac and The Bluetail!

My first Flamborough Bluetail. Gorgeous!

After enjoying the Bluetail, I wandered down the path to see if the Taiga Fly was around. There were a few birders looking but it hadn't been seen for a while. I headed round to the east side and had a chat with Johnny before deciding to head over to Old Fall for the last hour of light. As luck would have it, I bumped into Keith Clarkson and stood for a few minutes' chat. As we did so, the flycatcher suddenly appeared at eye-level right in front of us, allowing lovely views. It flicked up after an insect and was gone.

On to Old Fall, the path along the hedge was littered with Blackbirds, all busily feeding. Blackbirds and Redwings erupted out of the hedge as I made my way along. Some flew off high west, whilst others just moved along the hedge towards the plantation. This was really cool and an absolutely enthralling end to the week. A Woodcock exploded out from the plantation boundary as I made my way round, passing my face within a metre allowing us to catch each other's eye.  The darkening trees were alive with the chuckles of unseen Blackies and the Tseeping of hidden Redwings, preparing for the off. After soaking up this marvellous spectacle, I wandered back up towards the road, flushing another explosive Woodcock, waves of Blackbirds heading west overhead, high into the final rays of sunshine, flying inland on the next leg of their migration. 


As I finish writing this, news has come of the passing of birding legend DIM Wallace on Thursday. I had the good fortune to meet Ian a couple of times at Birdfair where he would always indulge me in discussions of migration or the east coast -or both. His writing was a great inspiration to me as a young birder and his musings are always a regular conversation topic with birding mates- and always will be. I loved his monthly articles in Birdwatching mag back in the day; perhaps somebody could scan all those in and put them online as I would love to read them again. I think DIMW would have enjoyed the dusk walk along Old Fall on Friday afternoon. RIP DIMW.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Village Fall

As I set out on my early morning dog walk under a leaden sky, I could feel a cold north wind and from the look of the glistening pavements, there had been early morning rain. Perfect fall conditions. If I lived on the coast...

Birds were on the move, with high tseeps of Redwings in the gloomy sky, and small flocks of Wood Pigeons cruising south. Three Fieldfares chacked overhead, the first I've seen locally this autumn. In fact, I have only seen one other Fieldfare, at Flamborough back in October. More Redwings came over, one flock accompanied by a couple of bulkier Song Thrushes. Dark-billed, skulking Blackbirds littered the cycle track south of the village.

I made the approach to home and noticed two bulky finches flying up out of the trees at the end of our road- yikes! Hawfinches! Surely not? They flew straight over, offering insane views, and to my surprise, looped round just above rooftop level as if looking for a place to land. I dropped the dog lead and fumbled for my phone. The birds came back over and I hit record; they came back, over towards the paddocks and then back again. Was this happening, here in the housing estate?! To my astonishment, they landed in the bush across the road from where I was standing - absolutely nuts! 

After a few moments, they were off again, low down. Once again, they looped back round and landed somewhere in the trees near Red House. Fantastic. 

Hawfinches, junction of Keble Park South and Acaster Lane mega.

Hawfinches used to be an occasional winter visitor in the Bishopthorpe area back in the 80s and early 90s, feeding under the large Hornbeams around the Archbishop's Palace Grounds and also to the north, in Knavesmire Woods.  Since then, they have become much rarer and have disappeared from many former haunts in the county- until a couple of years ago when there was a big influx into the UK. Since then, some of those traditional Hawfinch sites have been frequented again. Nevertheless, this was a stonking record for a suburban housing estate!

 Hawfinch phone-video grabs

At home, I looked out of the back window and to continue the excitement, the first Tree Sparrows of the year were on the feeders - three in all, my biggest count in ten years! They never seem to hang around long, but hopefully they might return. 

Tree Sparrows, rocking the cheek spots. So 2021!