Monday 27 December 2021


Up before dawn, I headed for Wheldrake Ings and immediately had second thoughts - it was blanketed in thick fog! No worries, it would be nice to have a wander after a couple of days cooped-up eating and drinking too many Christmas treats! 

I was hoping to see the six Smew that Duncan Bye had found yesterday, but I would have to wait until the fog lifted. A Barn Owl flushed out of Tower Hide as I walked past; a nice start. Walking down to the far end, Pintail, Wigeon and Teal could be heard calling, unseen in the murk, whilst a few Curlews and Golden Plovers called among a large roost of Lapwings on the refuge. 

I scanned through the ducks I could see from Swantail Hide, but there was no sign of any Smew, but I could only see about 50 metres, so I wasn't too surprised. Shortly, a weird noise drew my attention to the reedbed in front of the hide. It sounded like a 'sneezing' Starling, or at least, the sound that Starlings occasionally make which I have always assumed was a sneeze but may well be just an odd call! Strangely, it repeated this regularly and from within the reedbed. I was a bit puzzled by this, although could not think that it could be anything else. I decided to go outside, where I could hear it better. Outside, the bird was still calling from low in the reeds but I couldn't make anything else of it. It must be 'just' a Starling behaving oddly. 

I then noticed a sharp 'tak' from further back. It sounded like a Dusky Warbler! Surely not. But it was, I just knew it. It was calling repeatedly but was too far through the reeds to have a hope of seeing it. I had a quick listen to Xeno Canto on my phone just to check I wasn't going mad. A small dark bird immediately shot straight towards me and into a nearby Willow; a stonkingly-drab Dusky Warbler! Absolutely no way! I quickly switched the video on to see if I could get a sound recording and to my amazement, the little skulker hopped out into the open. Quickly checking my phone, it had recorded the call quite clearly and a bit of the bird - fantastic. I got the news out and did a little dance on the boardwalk.

This was just mind-blowing. We'd all mused about a Dusky turning up in the reedbed here, but never thought it would actually happen! Just then, Stuart Rapson walked round the corner to see me beaming like an idiot and pointing at the reedbed. He'd not heard the news as yet, so was slightly amazed when I told him that there was a Dusky Warbler six feet away. To my relief he heard it straight away and then it showed too - phew! We watched it for a while as it flicked about in the reedbed tacking away, occasionally appearing quite close to us on the boardwalk.

Shortly, Duncan and Adam Firth arrived and I was relieved the bird was still calling frequently as it made it easier to keep track of. It was pretty mobile and headed through the reedbed towards the footbridge. As Jack Ashton-Booth and Chris Gomersall arrived, it moved into the Willows along the path from Pool Hide and then flew across into some bushes on the refuge. It was barely audible and couldn't be seen. Thankfully, after a bit, it flew out calling back towards the footbridge and we all got on it again. Five Goosanders flew over. Nice. It melted back into the reedbed and silence descended.

Several more birders arrived, so still buzzing, I decided to head home for a celebratory mince pie.  Oh, and the weird noise was a Starling; I saw it fly out of the reedbed whilst watching the Dusky.

A full fat first for York, an unexpected end to what has been another good year for local birding here in York. 

I heard later that the Dusky was showing most of the day, off and on, which was great. Joe Fryer managed to get this pic of it - nice work Joe! Hopefully it will linger longer, allowing other locals who are away for Christmas to catch up with it. Dusky Warbler at Wheldrake. Unbelievable scenes!!

Christmas Eve Diver

Stopped off at my old patch of Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, on the way to the in-laws for Christmas. With some gen from old mate Mark Hawkes, I gently encouraged the family to take a wander down the dam. Fifty Goldneyes were loafing off Marlow CP and after we'd reached the water tower, the reptilean form of a Great Northern Diver hove into view. It was casually feeding, whilst drifting closer across the glassy surface of the reservoir. I only had my bins and phone, so this was the best I could do in terms of recording a bit of video. A nice early Christmas present!


Thursday 23 December 2021

BK Whopper

Dawn found me standing at the top of a wooded riverbank somewhere near Preston, Lancashire, squinting through the branches of the trees lining the River Darwen. As the light increased, a Common Kingfisher whistled as it headed upstream, unseen. But our target had a different call. We strained our ears, and minutes later a dry rattle could clearly be heard from below us: the Belted Kingfisher was still here and awake! 

I had picked up Philip from some random car park near Bolton and now we joined a hundred or so birders eager for an early Christmas present, standing at the edge of a muddy field, overlooking the river below.


After a few tense moments, both Philip and me saw the unmistakeable bird flap across the river and up into a tree. Sadly, it was now out of sight. Chaotic scenes ensued; only one birder had actually managed to get his scope on the perched bird. Birders scrambled around in the mud trying to get a good angle through the trees and down the slope, which was not easy. The monster kingfisher moved and more birders managed to lock on, but my view was mostly obscured. Fortunately, a couple of kind birders demonstrating fantastic Christmas spirit let me have a look through their scopes - awesome - thanks lads!

I now had an idea where the bird was and shortly, Philip managed to locate the bird with his bins and after a bit of an explanation about which branches to look through, I managed to get on it. What a cracking bird! All slate-blue and punk. The BK casually sat, surveying the scene from the edge of an oak, occasionally cocking its tail and swivelling its head. The white collar and belly stood out against the dark, woody backdrop. Lovely!


Repaying the kindness shown to me, I gave arriving birders a look through my scope before taking a bit of video and a pic or two. The bird seemed to favour this particular perch as it returned frequently, after dives and sorties up and down the river. By 9am, we decided to make tracks, and slopped off through the mud and the murk, beaming madly. 

Chrismas twitch

Present since early November, this male Belted Kingfisher had been playing hard to get, evading many twitchers and local birders, for weeks. It has been mobile, being seen along the Ribble the local canal and now the Darwen. Lots of the area is private and difficult to view but in the last couple of days it decided to settle along this quiet stretch of the River Darwen, near Roach Bridge, allowing birders to catch up with it. 

Seeing this bird eased the pain of dipping the 2005 bird in Staffordshire. Back then, and once we had realised it was not an April Fool's joke, Mark Hawkes and me discussed going for it that evening after work. I was doubtful that we would get there before the bird went to roost, and so we settled on dawn the next day. Sadly for us, the bird showed until dusk on the Friday and we would have made it. My bad! The following day we waited in vain - the bird had decamped to Yorkshire! We all piled north and missed it again; it had flown off hours before we got there. A couple of days later, the bird was relocated near Aberdeen but I didn't have the chance - or motivation - to go all that way to see it. Apart from a one-day bird on the Scillies last year, this has been the first since. A cracking bird to end what has been a pretty amazing year for rarities in the north of England. Just a shame it was in Lancashire!


We popped into Preston to check on a Ring-billed Gull in the marina, but to no avail. We headed south, I wished Philip Merry Christmas and then headed back east through the worsening weather.

Sunday 12 December 2021


 I have had three visits to the Lower Derwent Valley in the last week, two guiding for Yorkshire Coast Nature and one alone. Storm Arwen's wake brought the first real flooding to the valley, with a rise in the number of birds. The highlight was two Otters under the bridge at Bubwith, but there have been plenty of avian thrills, including at least 85 Whooper Swans, three White-fronted Geese, hunting Peregrines and Marsh Harriers, a sleepy Tawny Owl on 'my Barn Owl box' and last but not least, a lovely redhead Smew just outside the LDV at Hes East. Local birding ain't bad!

Iceland's finest, Whooper Swans; Tawny Owl at Wheldrake, White-fronts at Ellerton.

Smew, Hes East.