Sunday 30 January 2022

Raptor Weekend

The concentration of birds at Wheldrake Ings is pulling in raptors in search of avian prey, with a smart adult male Peregrine causing havoc among the large flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers, while at least three Marsh Harriers continually patrol, looking for a sick or injured victim. This afternoon, an injured Black-headed Gull was plucked from the water a number of times by a persistent Marsh Harrier. The gull had part of it's wing missing, so was an easy target, but it managed to escape every time and eventually the harrier gave up and the gull managed to hide in amongst the gathering roost. 

Click here to watch the full video on Youtube

The regular second-winter Mediterranean Gull arrived on schedule and proceeded to play with clumps of weed and sticks as it seems to do most days. It seemed to particularly enjoy this game today in the strong wind. 

Peregrine (top), Marsh Harrier and Med Gull (on the water at the back).


The Forest

It felt like spring up in the forest today. My first visit since early summer, I needed to do a reccie ahead of some tours I will be leading in a couple of week. I was greeted by a calm, sunny morning, the air full of birdsong. Song and Mistle Thrushes were singing, along with Marsh and Great Tits, whilst Treecreepers and Nuthatches were vocal as usual. Several Buzzards, including  the usual white birds were much in evidence, enjoying the winter sun although my target, Goshawks, were noticeable by their absence. Several Mandarins and 20 Teals were disturbed from the lake near Hilla Green mid-morning, presumably by walkers.

I had seen two Sparrowhawks before picking up my first Gos, an adult male, indulging in a couple of nonchalant switchbacks high over Langdale End. Back to my favourite spot, the increasing warmth of the sun tempted a large lady Gos out of the depths of the forest. She stiffly flapped over the canopy, tail held tightly shut, with a white snowball puffing out underneath. She landed in the top of a fir half a mile away and called loudly. A striped immature male glided past, taunting the female, he flew big loops around the ridge, before suddenly diving down into the depths of the forest. The female glowered around, surveying her territory and challenging all comers. Checking the ridge behind me, another Gos, an adult male this time was circling slowly over the canopy, lit up by the late morning sunshine. He looked almost white underneath, with a dark hood. Turning my attention back to the female, I took a few pics -  not easy because of the distance- before she dropped off her perch and descended silently into the trees. 

Saturday 29 January 2022

A Rare Glance at the Tundra

Bewick's Swans are rare in the York area, so it was great to see this pair of adults - sadly without any kids in tow- with the Lower Derwent Valley Whooper Swan herd, yesterday. Noticeably smaller and shorter- necked compared with their Icelandic cousins, the birds were easily picked out even from a considerable distance, as they stomped around in the winter wheat to the east of Menthorpe Lane, North Duffield. Bewick's are declining internationally as they get hunted - illegally- on their migrations through the Baltic states from Siberian breeding grounds to the Low Countries and the UK in winter. The herd used to equal the Whoopers in the LDV; now we are lucky to record a couple a year.


Over at Wheldrake, a couple of Marsh Harriers, which are doing very well these days, were terrorising the hordes of ducks, whilst a pair of Stock Doves fed along the bank at North Duffield Carrs.

Sunday 23 January 2022



Spent half an hour watching a majestic Great Northern Diver fishing in the murky brine of Scarborough Harbour. A gentle-looking immature bird and remarkably confiding, approaching within a few metres of where we crouched on the boatramp. Some of the lines and colours reflected in the water made my snaps quite abstract in a few cases.

Nearby, a Shag was roosting on the rocks by Marine Drive, with Grey Seals, Harbour Porpoises and Common Scoters offshore.

Otter Magic

Otters are just amazing! As they bounce back from the brink of extinction (caused largely by persecution, habitat loss and even more so by pollution) I see them every now and again, and every time it is a massive treat. They are one of those animals that seems so vibrant and to actually enjoy life. 

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a few hours watching a pair of Otters in the local area, thanks to a tip-off from a friend. 


We silently waited by the bank, and after a little while, the dog Otter, a big, broad-headed bruiser, cruised along the edge, literally a couple of metres away. He was digging around in the roots of the Alders at the edge of the water, all bubbles, splashing and snorting breaths. Every so often, he would drift out from the bank to munch an unlucky small fish, with one eye on us, watching from the bank. After a while, he swam back towards an island and the pair reunited with lots of snickering and yipping and began rolling around together. They were clearly a mating pair. It was absolutely thrilling to watch. 

Otters have to eat frequently and so we didn't have to wait long before they were back in the water and heading our way. Otters apparently have an unusually high metabolism for an animal of their size (up to 10kg, 1.2m in a male) due to the high energy requirement to stay warm whilst in cold water.

The following day, I went back for another look. The male had departed leaving the female in peace - at least for a while! Male Otters will spend a week or so with a female when she is in season and will then leave her alone, which seems to be what had happened (although I heard today that he had returned). The female was busy fishing and to my delight, came out on to a platform and later on to a small island in plain view. Any fish larger than a few centimetres was hungrily consumed out of the water, whereas the little fry, she would just munch down, mid-swim. 

At the end of another lovely hour watching the slighter, svelte form of the female fishing, the light began to fade and I decided to head home. To my surprise, she seemed to be going the same way, and cruised effortlessly across the water surface, converging on the spot towards where I was heading. 


She dived without a ripple and I sat down among the tree roots and Ivy, holding my breath. She reappeared in the reeds where she snuffled about, possibly hunting frogs. She disappeared again, back into the water. There was a timber pontoon by the bank, only a few metres away and I hoped she might climb on to it. And she did! She was so close, I could hear her breath. She knew I was there, so close to her, but she didn't seem to mind. If I made any slight movement, she looked at me, inquisitively - or perhaps her hearing was superior to her eyesight! On the deck, she was fascinated by this strange structure and its smells, investigating all it's nooks and crannies, padding silently across the grooved decking. She had a distinctive white patch on her throat and was just beautiful. For once, I managed to hold my nerve enough to get some photos! 

Hunting frogs in the reeds

Wednesday 19 January 2022

12KM to Heaven

Sunday morning, I cycled up to Wheldrake Ings. A glorious, icy dawn broke as I headed east, over the misty Ouse and along the lanes to Crockey Hill. Grey Partridges huddled in the crisp fields and two Little Egrets were unexpected angels, glowing as they passed overhead. 

On to the Ings and I headed round to Swantail. 'My' Dusky Warbler was calling from the reeds just past the footbridge, clinging on despite the chilly weather. Another familiar face, 'D3' the Suffolk Marsh Harrier was hanging out too and spent most of the morning harrassing the ducks, along with another, unmarked bird. A Nuthatch was a pleasant surprise in Oaks just across the Derwent and I enjoyed close views of a confiding Willow Tit. A couple of hardy Stonechats and a solitary Pink-footed Goose that dropped in to join the Greylag flock were also noted.

Dusky Warbler wintering habitat

The spectacle of Wheldrake was a joy to behold; if heaven was a place on earth, this would be pretty close. Though I'd prefer it to be a few degrees warmer!

 The non-motorised yearlist has edged up to 102. Not a bad start!

Sunday 9 January 2022

Last day of 2021

New Year's Eve found me a short distance south of Musselburgh, so the chance to hang out for an hour with Yorkshire Terrier Darren Woodhead and his birding legend son, Corin, was too good an opportunity to miss. I was also keen to have a look for the American White-winged Scoter that had been kicking about for the last few winters. Sadly, Darren's local gen was that the scoter had not been reliably seen since mid-December...

I arrived at the harbour not long after 8am and the Woodhead lads turned up an hour later. The sea was flat calm - perfect for birding, although it was a bit hazy and the rain showers knocked the visibility a bit. Nevertheless, it was cracking winter birding, with over a dozen Slavonian Grebes, single Red-necked and Great Crested Grebes, 30+ Long-tailed Ducks, 30+ Velvet Scoters, 200+ Common Eiders, several Red-breasted Mergansers and best of all, a pair of Surf Scoters, a male and a first winter/female. Sadly there was no sign of the AWWS despite scrutinising the Velvets hard. Sadly, many of them were far out which made things difficult, though Corin assured us we'd pick it up if it was there. Too soon I had to head south to return to the family and preparing for New Year's Eve. A cracking end to the year!

Happy New Year folks!

Darren, me and Corin
Two Surfies, a Velvet and a distant Slav.

The Birding Year Ahead


Thanks for reading my blog. I do it mainly for myself, as I like looking back from time to time, to remind myself of what I've done and seen, but it is also nice to share my dodgy pics and stories with you all. And I really appreciate your support and occasional kind words!

The impact of my hobby on the climate crisis has been weighing heavily on my mind these last few years. A few years ago I imposed a two hour drive limit on my birding, pretty much restricting me to Yorkshire. However, even so, adding together all those trips round the local area, visits to the east coast during the autumn, and the occasional 'two hour' twitch thrown in and I amassed a rather shocking 8,000 driven birding miles in 2021! Even though many of these miles are in my low-emission Toyota Aygo, it is still pretty awful! 

As a family, we have chosen to live close to where we work, meaning both my wife and I can commute to work on our bikes. Of course at the moment this is less relevant as I work from home quite a lot due to the pandemic, but as we come out of it, I will be back on my bike. We made this choice as we work five days a week, whereas I only go birding one or two days a week, with the odd evening thrown in during spring and summer, so this largely made sense. Some of the biggest critics of carbon-burning birding I note, have done the opposite; live at a great birding location and then commute by car to work. Which is best? Who's to say! Anyway, I am pretty embarassed by the mileage I have racked up and so I am determined to do something about this. I live in York, it is pretty flat and has good transport links. Therefore, it should be easy to reduce my driven birding mileage and reduce the carbon footprint associated with my hobby. 

My commitment for 2022 is to try and halve my driven birding mileage. I can't go completely cold turkey at this point as this will mean my birding will drastically reduce as I have to fit my birding round family and work commitments and besides the physical effort of cycling, there is also a much bigger demand on time. Anyway, I'm going to give it a go and hopefully I will get fitter and feel less bad about by birding in the process. 

I have been inspired by the likes of Nick Moran, Adam Firth, Simon Gillings, Birdguides/Birdwatch and others who have blazed this trail and hope others will follow suit. I just need to persuade Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to put a bike rack at Wheldrake Ings! #LocalBigYear #LowCarbonBirding

Good birding in 2022! Jono


Cycled up to Wheldrake early afternoon. Stacks of birds present, including a huge flock of Lapwings, Golden Plovers and Fieldfares feeding on the main meadow. A Marsh Harrier caused panic among the birds, checking for any injured or sick birds. During the melee, the birds were distracted and a Sparrowhawk took the opportunity, dashing out from the riverside willows to snatch a Fieldfare. Pretty cool! The Barnacle Goose was feeding among the Greylags, along with two Pink-feet that arrived late afternoon with several hundred Greylags. Good numbers of large gulls came in, which is a change from the recent norm. At least 170 Herring Gulls and 35+ Great Black-backs were present and I pulled out a first-winter Caspian Gull from among them. A small one, probably a female, she seemed to have been feeding somewhere gross, with some dark brown splodges down one side of her breast. I cycled back at dusk noting calling Grey Partridges along the roadside and a Little Owl atop a telegraph post near Crockey Hill. Oh, and I heard a Moorhen near Wheldrake bridge! Where was that on bird race day?

Meanwhile, at home, a female Blackcap and a couple of Reed Buntings have been visiting the feeders in the garden over the past week.

Wednesday 5 January 2022

The Sentinel

On my way out to check on the wader scrapes that I have been having restored, I paid homage to the Great Grey Shrike near Wistow. The bird was seen on arrival, perched Sentinel-like on a distant tree, scanning ominously around, looking for an unsuspecting vole or Chaffinch to impale. A class bird as always, it headed off purposefully north towards Cawood at 12.45, no doubt to get up to some evil business.


Yorkshire Bird Race - Terriers on Bikes!

This year's Mike Clegg Memorial Yorkshire Bird Race was, like last year, to be non-motorised. This suited me fine due to my aim to cut down on my driven birding miles in '22. Half of the Yorkshire Terriers - Rich Baines and me - decided to don our helmets and saddle up to ride around the north end of the Lower Derwent Valley. Unlike last year's icy fiasco, this year's race would take place in strangely clement conditions, with temperatures in double figures and under crisp, sunny skies: perfect for some biking action. 

We strode out into the darkness at Allerthorpe Common, realising we were a bit too late for Woodcocks and Long-eared Owls, as the skies were lightening rapidly as a crystal-clear dawn broke in the east. It was cool, as always, to hear our avian neighbours wake up, greet the day and go about their business. Robins, followed by Blackbirds, then an unexpected Bullfinch, flyover Carrion Crows and early-rising Woodpigeons. Distantly, a Tawny Owl gave it one last blast before retiring. Good numbers of Redwings tseeped overhead, the mild weather keeping lots in the York area this winter. A Redpoll was a welcome addition to the list, as were a small party of Siskins moments later. As we reached the eastern end of the pinewoods, a wheeze from a Brambling took us both by surprise, as did the dozen or so more, that got up from their roost in the pines and headed off over the heath. 

Clambering the fence into the YWT reserve, I regretted not putting on my wellies as the ground was wet and I was sure there would be a Jack Snipe lurking somewhere in the wetter areas. Common Snipe erupted as I made my way gingerly around the driest edge of the marsh (I still got wet feet); Rich counted 31, a great record for here. A Barn Owl took umbridge to my close approach to its nest box and glared out briefly, before flying out to another roost site. Sorry mate!

Stock Doves, Fieldfares and a Treecreeper crept on to the swelling list as we made our way back to the road under pungent pines. I was desperate not to leave without Marsh Tit, as I felt we wouldn't find suitable habitat again. We walked back up the main ride and a pair of Great Tits heralded the arrival of a small mixed flock. Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits bounced past, followed miraculously by a dapper Marsh Tit, sneezing its call loudly in the dawn air. Nice. 

Three geese headed past as we got to the edge of the wood - Pinks? No, despite the dark necks, the bright orange beaks and bill bands, dark flanks and deeper calls revealed them to be Tundra Bean Geese! A massive bonus tick and the first of the winter for me. They headed southwest, presumably towards Thornton Ellers. I dashed across the road to get a view, but could not get back on them; a Red Kite was a good consolation, as was our first Buzzard of the day.

This was a great start. Now for some biking. Rich managed to put his helmet on back to front, demonstrating how frequently he cycles these days (see pic!)....We headed off into the bright sunshine towards Thornton, scanning the fields for partridges, buntings and the like. Large flocks of Fieldfares stalked the fields for worms, whilst Lapwings flopped across in the distance and nearby, two Pied Wagtails worked a flash in the middle of some winter wheat. We headed down Field Lane for Corn Bunting, and sure enough, near a cover strip, several of these bulky buntings were bumbling around crackling like electricity. A large flock of Linnets were seen with several Greenfinches, Yellowhammers and our only Meadow Pipit of the day. A large skein of Pink-footed Geese dropped south towards the Ellers - perhaps the Tundra Beans were with them, but they were a bit too far off to tell.

Back to Thornton where a Mistle Thrush was closely followed by a melee of Tree Sparrows on the farm bird feeders, bringing up the 50, and then south, to Melbourne. We detoured again, down to the reedbed east of Church Bridge, to listen for Cetti's Warblers. Sadly, nothing sang from the reedbed that swayed like the sea in the increasingly strong wind, but a Grey Wagtail called from near the bridge as we returned to the road, which was a definite bonus.

Heading west through Melbourne, we bumped into Neil Cooper - a birder tick! Neil advised us that he had heard a Cetti's in the very same reedbed earlier (doh!) and had also seen a Kingfisher nearby. It would be long gone sadly so there was no point chasing after it. We were certainly not guaranteed to find one during the day. In fact, Kingfisher was one of the commonest species we missed during our Yorkshire Big Day in 2019. 


Over Hagg Bridge and Rich picked a random spot for a rest under the guise of scanning for farmland birds! This proved to be successful as he picked up a couple of partridges sunbathing in front of a hedge. I dragged the scope out of the panier and identified them as Red-legs, as expected. Just need to find some Greys next. Into Sutton-on-Derwent and the next brief pause revealed our first Kestrel of the day and a flyover Great Spotted Woodpecker. Things were ticking along nicely.

Shortly things went weird for a moment! We stopped near the church just across from the river as we thought it might be good for Song Thrush, which so far had eluded us. Rich suddenly shouted 'Teal' and as this would be our first duck of the day, I looked up to see a small, pale, thin-necked duck heading over. That was no Teal - Goosander sprang to mind and lips, before Rich binned my suggestion and called 'Smew!'. I got my bins on it as the bird turned revealing a nice white cheek in a chestnut head. It swang south down the river and away past the church, leaving us punching the air and beaming. Smew, number 60. 

We now had a tough ride over the river, through Elvington and south to Wheldrake. The wind made the ride hard, but we agreed we'd reward ourselves with a pint at the Wenlock Arms pub in the village (we were clearly taking the race very seriously!). After a tough struggle, I was dismayed to find the pub shut! Nevermind, the village shop was open, so plan B swang into action. Apart from a disappointing lack of pies and pasties, I did secure a pack of mini pork pies and two bottles of Punk IPA. Perfect. Minutes later, we toasted our day from the top of the platform at Bank Island, whilst scoffing pork pies and adding our first real selection of wetland species to our list. A Marsh Harrier caused panic among the ducks, and a distant first-winter Great Black-backed Gull flapped onto the list at number 70. 

With full bellies and light hearts, we made our way down to Wheldrake Ings, where we bumped into a couple of fellow bird race teams. Just then, a Kingfisher whistled as it shot down the Derwent, unblocking that jynx. From the Tower Hide, we added Ruff, but frustratingly the regular pair of Stonechats had decided to do a bunk. A Willow Tit helpfully called along the riverbank before we bumped into James Robson who had just seen the Dusky Warbler in the reedbed near Swantail Hide. So it was still here! I have more than a little affection for this diminutive Sibe, so I was keen we add it to our bird race list. It would be the rarest bird we've ever recorded on the Mike Clegg bird race too. Unfortunately, it had vanished by the time we got down there, so I got back into bird race mode, quickly nailing Redshank, Water Rail and Little Grebe. A handful of smart Goldeneyes shone in the afternoon sun, bringing real character to the winter scene. At this point we realised the day was ebbing away, so we needed to make sure we hadn't missed any obvious species. Reed Bunting was one and amazingly, Moorhen was another! Surely not!

Shortly, Chris Gomersall called to say their team had refound the Dusky! Great - we shot down the boardwalk and with ears peeled locked on to the sharp tack of the little warbler as it furtively crept about in the back of the willow copse. Good work lads! We waited a while but there was no chance we would see it so decided to wander back to Tower Hide for the gull roost. A large flock of waders and gulls burst up from the refuge - there must be a raptor! I quickly picked up a falcon high up, causing the Lapwings to bunch together in panic - a male Peregrine. He hurtled southeast but not before Rich managed to pick it up - great! Number 85. Chris and co shouted to say they were watching a Merlin from further along the path. What?! Surely my ID wasn't that bad? As it turned out the Merlin had gone through low as the Peregrine had cruised off high- the two bird theory in this case was correct. Ollie had even seen both birds. Big smiles all round. A Reed Bunting then flew past calling. Sublime!

Down to Tower and the lads had picked up the regular second-winter Mediterranean Gull and also called an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull heading south. We locked on to both in quick succession. 


As dusk approached, the light failed and it was time to head back to the bridge for the traditional Woodcock ending. No Moorhens called as we went along the river. Unbelievable! The three teams gathered at the bridge - Chris, Ollie, Tim and Jack; Duncan, Jane and Rob, and ourselves. Sure enough, within a few minutes, Chris called Woodcock, but only Ollie got on it. Tense minutes past and then another Woodcock followed closely by two more flew over. Excellent! I checked the list, it looked like we were going to end on 89, unless we heard a Moorhen as we made our way along the river and back to Bank Island. Sadly, the local Moorhens were quiet. Rich even tried to play the call on his phone, just for pure craziness of trying to tape lure one of our commonest wetland birds. It didn't work. We settled with 89, it had been an excellent day in great company, with some great bonuses and adding Dusky Warbler to our bird race list was fantastic. It had been really good fun, raising money for Yorkshire's Turtle Doves and seeing lots of birders out enjoying birding in the York area - superb! 


As it turned out, I had once again under-counted by two, as our total turned out to be 91! Chris and co notched up an impressive 97 and once again won the Yorkshire Bird Race in fine style. To my amazement we came second, despite missing Moorhen and several other common species (Whooper Swan, Goosander, Little Owl, Grey Partridge, Green Woodpecker, Stonechat, Nuthatch etc), having cycled 22 KM and walked a further 16 KM. Not bad for two old gits!

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