Saturday 26 February 2022

Queen of the Forest

After a couple of weeks of turbulent, often violent weather, the clement embrace of early spring arrived and was most welcome. Frogs spawned in our little pond and Blackbirds, the most heart-melting of resident songsters have joined the growing dawn and dusk choruses; I have seen a bumblebee and my first Celandines. 

Yesterday, under clear, bright skies, I led my first Goshawk Tour of the season for Yorkshire Coast Nature.  Having done a recce a couple of weeks ago and with great conditions, I had high hopes that we would be successful. Our tour started with great views of a pair of Common Crossbills feeding on Larch seeds, in the company of Siskins and Goldfinches. It was great to watch the male in the morning sunshine, lighting him up like a fiery candle. 


A few moments later and a big pale bird shot across the trail 50 metres in front of us; one of the clients who was ahead of me shouted 'there's one!' and sure enough the ghostly phantom of the forest, a big female Goshawk circled up over the nearby forest, and drifted slowly right overhead. 


Her majesterial beauty

Her tail was tightly closed and her white undertail coverts puffed out like big pantaloons, almost fully encircling her tail. She was so close you could see her tilt her head to look at our little group, huddled below, watching her in awe. This was an incredible start to our tour and as she drifted away, we all beamed with delight. 

We pressed on to another likely looking spot. Soon, an immature male Gos drifted over, his heavily streaked, buffy underparts giving him quite a different appearance to the Queen of the Forest we'd seen earlier. We picked up another female over the far side of the open area, displaying with typical straight, owl-like wings. The amplitude of her wing strokes became more and more exagerrated and we suddenly noticed another female above her. This seemed to be a territorial skirmish and they briefly came together, talons out-stretched. The display was enough and one of the birds drifted off into the distance, while the other female dropped into the forest.

The young lad; remarkable how different this bird looks in these two shots.

Returning to our original location, we picked up the Queen's consort, an adult male, cruising around over the valley. We watched him as he crested the ridge and headed off over the arable lands, flushing large flocks of portly Woodpigeons which had been feeding on the winter wheat. He took a bit of interest and looped back round into the safety of the trees. 

It was clearly a good day for Goshawks, with a fresh breeze and warm spring sunshine. The Queen soon reappeared along with her mate and a little later we picked up another male to the north which could have been a different bird. We moved on, seeing another male far to the east of our original location followed by our last bird, probably a female, at the end of the afternoon. I am pretty sure we had eight different individuals, with numerous sightings. Every one was a real thrill, but our first encounter with the Queen of the Forest was truly breathtaking.

Happy clients watching Goshawks in the sunshine

Sunday 13 February 2022

Beautiful Siberian Duck

Baikal Teal, a stunning duck which breeds in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia has a confusing status in the UK. Until recently, records were confined to the escape bin before isotope analysis of dead or captured individuals proved vagrancy to western Europe had indeed occurred. A reassessment of records led to a number of birds making the grade for acceptance on to the official British List, including the 2001 individual at Minsmere, Suffolk, which I saw. More recently, the dapper drake that graced Hornsea Mere briefly in late May 2019 was thrown in the escape bin by BBRC despite hanging out with wild Wigeon and moving steadily north with them, having spent time in the Cambridgeshire washes beforehand. This was similar to the 2014 bird which was accepted. Puzzling? Yes. Over this winter, there have been a small flurry of records in the UK. A first-winter drake at Fair Isle in October preceded an adult drake in Staffordshire, that moved to Somerset (which is still present at the time of writing) and a first-winter drake (thought possibly to be the Fair Isle bird) much closer to home along the River Hull in East Yorkshire. 

Having focussed much of my birding on the local area so far this year, I was keen to have a look for this bird. The duck has been mobile, spending time at Tophill Low and Swine Moor, but occasionally popping up at Leven Carrs. It is a big area, with lots of wetland, so I felt this could be tricky. There had been no reports all week until Mark Pearson found it at Swine Moor again on Thursday afternoon. Friday was gorgeously sunny and early spring was definitely in the air. After a short drive, I arrived on site to find Swine Moor thronged with wildfowl and waders. The light was perfect and conditions could not have been better, but try as I might, I could not locate the bird. 

I decided to wander up the riverbank to High Eske which usually holds a few ducks. It was good to see a Marsh Harrier and a few Little Egrets along the way, plus good numbers of Redshanks feeding on the exposed patches of mud. I arrived at the lake but there was no sign of the Baikal Teal. A drakeGreater Scaup was sleepily loafing with a few Tufted Ducks, and a scattering of Goldeneyes and other common ducks. Back I went for another grilling of Swine Moor, but all to no avail. 

The following day, a quick check of North Duffield Carrs (first Oystercatcher of the spring, two Peregrines, 39 Ruff, 6 Curlew, 200+ Dunlin, 2 Red Kites) and Wheldrake Ings (Merlin, 3 Grey Partridges, 2 Marsh Harriers, 5 Ruff, 118 Coot, 174 Gadwall etc) was enjoyed before I made my way to my sister's, to help with some DIY.

After finishing the jobs, news of the Baikal Teal was broadcast - it was back at Swine Moor. My sister lives much nearer to Beverley, so a quick dash east was in order. Unfortunately, it was raining and blowing a gale, not quite the beautiful conditions of yesterday. 

I was hoping there would be some birders present on site to reduce the time it would take to find the bird in amongst hundreds of Wigeon and Teal but sadly, I was the only one there! With some useful gen from Joe Seymour who had relocated the bird earlier, I felt confident I was looking in the right part of the wetland, but there was no sign! I was getting soaked with horizontal rain drenching my left side; this wasn't pleasant. After a while, a big flock of Wigeon lifted out of the grass and landed on the scrape in front of me. I anxiously checked through them methodically, looking for the Baikal. Nothing in my first scan. Then, to my delight, on my next pan through, there it was, sleeping on the muddy edge of the pool among a few Teal and Wigeon! Even with it's head tucked away, the vertical white breast stripe and black and white rear-end were distinctive. Suddenly the rain and wind didn't matter. I dropped to the floor to get out of the worst of the weather and took a few pictures - with perfect timing as the teal woke up and revealed it's amazing yellow, black, white and bottle-green headpattern. 


After a couple of minutes, the Wigeon started flying back into the grass and shortly, the Baikal took off with a group of Wigeon and landed in amongst the hummocky grassland behind the pool and vanished. I scoped the flock for the next twenty minutes but couldn't refind the bird among the grazing Wigeon, although they were mostly obscured by the terrain. The rain was soaking through my trousers and the cold wind was numbing my leg (badly under-dressed as usual!) so after a bit I made my way back to the car where I gently steam-dried as I made my way back to York. I will have to see if this bird finds its way on to the official list, but it was still great to see. Just need to find one in the Lower Derwent Valley now!