Tuesday 30 August 2022

Consolation Prize


Well, the whales finally turned up - in droves! After a slow start to the whale-watchings season, a really impressive number of Minkes have turned up off the North Yorkshire coast in the last fortnight, with 81 being counted the other day off Staithes! 

Unfortunately, the weather turned just in time for my trip yesterday, and the sea conditions were just too rough to go out. Finding myself in the northeast of the county on a Bank Holiday with my plans for the day in tatters, it was a simple decision to carry on a touch further north to Redcar, to pay homage to the monster beach stalker, also known as the Greater Sand Plover. This is only the 18th for Britain and although I had seen the Spurn bird back in 2018 the chance to have another look at one of these beautiful waders in Yorkshire was too good to miss. 

A little later I arrived at the beach to find a lot of birders wandering around aimlessly. The bird had flown and nobody quite knew where it had gone. I followed suit and dithered for a bit before deciding to head south. This was a good call. I noticed a couple of birders acting in a slightly agitated fashion and when I saw them pointing excitedly, it looked like they may have refound the bird. Sure enough, as I made my way there, the news came through that it had turned up in the same spot where it has been present first thing. After a few minutes, I found the bird feeding happily with Sanderlings and Ringed Plovers among some kelp on the strandline. A stunning beast!


The GSP was a big, pale, plover, with a mighty chisel of a bill, black bandit-mask and a delicious apricot breast band. The bird had curious black-framed white spots on the forehead, something I'd noticed on the Spurn bird. 



The bird seemed to be feeding well, on sandhoppers and tiny crabs, which it wolfed down. After watching it for a while I turned my attention to the large numbers of gulls feeding on the exposed rocks. A fine juvenile Yellow-legged Gull was with them, along with some rather svelte and dusky juvenile Lesser Black-backs and a surprising number of Common Gulls. A loud 'chewit' turned my head skywards and a smoky dark juvenile Spotted Redshank flew over shouting its head off. It conveniently landed in a distant tidal pool. Having had sublime views of the Sand Plover, I decided it was time to head south to seawatch.

A little later, as I walked back to the car park, the Spotshank flew over, again calling loudly, before pitching on to the beach right in front of me. It seemed like it was excited to be in Redcar for the first time! I don't think that I've seen a Spotshank on a beach before.

Next up, Cowbar for a seawatch. There was a keen northeasterly blowing and a few squalls were rolling in off the North Sea. It felt good and after an hour, a large shearwater powered north through a rain shower, suggesting Great Shear by its flight style, dark upperparts and glimpses of a white collar, but it was just too distant and in poor visibility to clinch. Several Arctic Skuas headed south, some pausing to maraud the family groups of Sandwich Terns and Kittiwakes. A solitary Red-throated Diver in full summer plumage lazily flapped north, joining several flocks of Common Scoters heading the same way. Things died down mid afternoon, with only a single Sooty Shearwater to add to my list. I decided to call it a day.  Oh, and I saw a Minke Whale. There were another 80 out there somewhere, hidden in that raging sea!

Local Whinchats

Gone are the days when Whinchats used to breed on the heaths surrounding the Vale of York. This cool little chat was perhaps one of the first losses due to agricultural intensification and the decline of habitats and insect populations in the countryside. As a breeding bird, they have been pushed back to a few isolated spots in the uplands of Yorkshire which are free from the constant burning for grouse shooting or over-grazing by sheep. Fen Bog YWT is a good site for them and a couple of pairs breed in the scrubby heathland surrounding the bog. 

On autumn migration, Whinchats turn up pretty regularly in the LDV, with Wheldrake Ings being a good site. This year, up to eleven have been hanging out on the ings, pausing to lay on fat before they head further south, ultimately to Africa, unlike their shorter winged cousins, the Stonechats, who winter here in the UK. Usually, Whinchats at Wheldrake are way out on Swantail Ings, little beige blobs zipping about on the tops of the vegetation. Today, one was perched close to the hide, enabling me to have a good look at it and get a slightly fuzzy pic. 

A few days earlier, I led a Yorkshire Coast Nature Goshawk Safari. We saw two Honey Buzzards, a Goshawk, Tree Pipits, Kingfishers etc, but best of all was a family party of Spotted Flycatchers. Three fledged young were squeaking away in the trees, demanding food from their overworked parents.

Friday 12 August 2022

Cape Gull at Grafham Water!! 7th August


Mid-morning Sunday, I got a message from my good mate Mark Hawkes, about a possible Kelp Gull at Grafham Water, that had been found by Richard Patient. The slightly grainy photo looked promising, but a first for Britain at Grafham, in early August - surely not?!

A little while later, another photo emerged on Birdforum showing what was clearly a Kelp Gull, and with it's dark eye, presumably the Southern African subspecies, known as Cape Gull. Blimey! I could not quite get my head round this! Presumably due to the shock of this incredible find at my old patch, I failed to dash straight to the car and instead cycled to my parent's house to cut their grass (my Dad is off his feet due to an ankle op). I came home a bit later, had lunch.... and then I cracked. The bird was still showing along the dam at Grafham, so I called Mark and told him I'd be there in two hours. 

I have been trying to reduce my birding carbon footprint and am currently on about 50% of last year's driven kilometres (and about 30% of the emissions due to the purchase of a much more efficient car), but this would add 300 KM to my tally; not great. However, the lure of a first for Britain, and being at Grafham where I had birded incessantly for ten years was too much for me to bear, so south I went. 

Thankfully, te traffic was light which eased the tension and after two hours, I pulled into the familiar surroundings of Marlow Car Park. Grinning birders were milling about (a good sign) along with a lot of bemused non-birders enjoying the sunshine and wondering what all the fuss was about. I made my way on to the path across the dam and I could tell by the behaviour of the gathered throng that the bird was still present. To my surprise, it was really close, loafing on the shore in the dam corner, with several Yellow-legged Gulls, geese and a few ducks. 

It is easy when you have already been told what to expect, but this gull really was quite distinctive. It was larger than the nearby Lesser Black-backs, similar to the largest of the male Yellow-legs it was with. It's legs were long, particularly above the knee and a strange pale greeny-flesh grey - zombie flesh colour! The bill was massive, heavy-ended and combined with the rather flat-headed appearance and small Caspian Gull-esque bullet-hole dark eye, gave the bird a really mean look. The upperparts were black, noticeably darker than the LBBG and looking similar to Great Black-backed. The characteristic broad white tips to the wing feathers were only present on the inner-most secondaries and primaries, giving a hint of what was to come, once the bird had moulted a bit more. The rest of the trailing edge was narrow white. There were no mirrors whatsoever on the primaries. The tail feather one in from the outer on the right hand side was black; a retained immature feather. Despite its distinctive appearance, this was still one heck of a massive call by Mr Patient and full credit goes to him for identifying this bird completely out of the blue. Brilliant stuff. 


Shortly, Mark arrived and we celebrated this amazing experience. I was so pleased I'd gone to see this, to share the moment, one of the most incredible inland finds in the UK ever and at my old patch to boot. 

Seawatch Albatross - 27th July

 Spent the morning seawatching at Flamborough Head, following a good movement of seabirds the day before. It had largely calmed down, with no Cory's Shearwaters passing, but still good numbers of Manx Shearwaters and best of all, the Black-browed Albatross! I had hoped to see this majestic bird from the fog station but it only put in an appearance rarely, so to combine my rare seawatching trips with one of those infrequent visits seemed unlikely at best. Nevertheless, we watched in awe as the bird cruised around offshore for a few minutes, before heading slowly back towards Bempton. Other birds of note included a couple of pristine juvenile Mediterranean Gulls, a few Arctic Terns and stacks of Sandwich Terns. 

A little later, with not much around, I headed over to Bempton and had brief views of the albatross circling over Staple Newk, before it settled on the cliffs out of sight. I strolled further east and could see the bird sitting on the cliffs, albeit distantly.