Sunday 31 December 2023

One last blog for 2023

No sign of last New Year's Eve's Walrus in Scarborough today, but a handsome drake Red-breasted Merganser was busy fishing and taunting me about the gap in my York area list. Nearby, a reptilean juvenile Great Northern Diver was also after lunch, sliding underwater, submarine-like, navigating the murky harbour waters with ruby-red eyes. A Red-throated Diver was more shy, and sought the quieter waters at the front of the harbour. A few Rock Pipits fed along the rock armour on Marine Drive and a solitary Harbour Seal fed near to a hopeful angler, while pairs of Fulmars cackled from the sandstone cliffs above.

From top: Red-breaster Merganser, Great Northern Diver, Rock Pipit, Great Northern Diver

Friday 29 December 2023

2023: all done bar the shouting

Well, 2023 is nearly done. At the death, I've been having a little ponder about what the last 12 months has brought for me, wildlife-wise, some of which was captured in the pages of this blog.

Keep it local

York birding has been cracking, with a couple of 'firsts' for the area, both of which eluded being found by me, but both of which I saw: a glorious Squacco Heron at Bank Island in June, and a Purple Sandpiper brightening the dreariest day of the year, at Wheldrake Ings in early December. 

Another four species were gratefully unblocked by keen York listers (including myself of course!): Black Kite, Black-winged Stilt, American Golden Plover and Grey Phalarope. Big thanks to the finders of all these birds, who generously shared their news allowing other local birders to see them. All four (well, seven really; there were four stilts!) showed brilliantly, and it was great to twitch them with local mates and share the grins and good times.

My last York tick was a Brent Goose on the Low Grounds at Wheldrake, which I watched distantly from Bank Island, thanks to Ollie Metcalfe- perhaps not as spectacular as those others- but very welcome nonetheless! The last of these, the Purple Sandpiper, brought my York area list to a reasonably respectable 227, though I am still missing a few reasonably frequent birds - Bittern, Bearded Tit and Twite being three examples.

The York birding scene is fantastic, with a thriving York Ornithological Club, good local grapevine and genuine camaraderie. News spreads fast to those who want it, and there is a lack of petty politics that often marrs local birding.

Top to bottom: Black-winged Stilt, one of four at Heslington East in May, a pair of which nested at St Aidan's; Squacco Heron at Bank Island in June; Black Kite at Elvington, also in June; Grey Phalarope at Hemingbrough in October; American Golden Plover near Elvington in October; Brent Goose on the Low Grounds in October; Purple Sandpiper at Wheldrake Ings in December.


Yorkshire Listing

I have a self-imposed two hour twitch limit these days, which pretty much restricts me to Yorkshire. This is to reduce my carbon footprint, but also to spend more time birding, and less time travelling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, all my British ticks have been from Yorkshire, as has been the main pattern in recent years: Brown Booby at Hunmanby in September; Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Burniston in September; Red-headed Bunting (if accepted on to the offical British list) at Flamborough in October, and a Two-barred Warbler, also at Flamborough in October.  

From top: Brown Booby, September (pic taken at South Gare); Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Burniston; Two-barred Warbler at Flamborough; and, Red-headed Bunting at Flamborough.

In addition to these four British (and therefore Yorkshire) ticks, I also added another four species to my Yorkshire list: Black-throated Thrush at Wykeham in February; Black Kite at Duncombe Park in April; Broad-billed Sandpiper at Hatfield in May; Squacco Heron at Bank Island in June. 

From top: Black-throated Thrush at Wykeham in February; Black Kite (pic taken a Elvington); and, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Hatfield in May.
It has all been pretty exciting really! I have been privileged to work with a fantastic bunch of people at Yorkshire Coast Nature, and also Wildlife Travel, besides my day job at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, showing folks a range of exciting birds and wildlife both in Yorkshire and Norfolk. Seeing the excitement on people's faces the first time they see a Goshawk or a mighty Minke Whale is awesome and never gets tired. I look forward to more trips in 2024.
Other really memorable moments this year included jamming the summer-plumaged adult White-billed Diver at Flamborough in October, which saved a rather disappointing day; the influx of Alpine Swifts in early Spring and, of course, the return of 'my' Swift pair to breed again in the nestbox. This year, they reared three chicks all of which fledged successfully.With no crazy hot spell like we had in 2022, there were far fewer Swift chicks needing rehab this year, which made for a calmer and more successful breeding season for those adults that made it back through the rough spring weather in the Med.
With the help of Mikey Naylor who spent a lot of time in his workshop building boxes, I installed 25 new Swift nestboxes in Bishopthorpe and the south of York city. Hopefully, some of these will be found by Swifts looking for a home next year.

A spring Willow Warbler in the garden was also thrilling, as were the several Redpolls that shared the feeders with the more regular visitors during late winter, enlivening many a boring online work meeting! 
Alpine Swift (top) at Easington, and our Swift pair, reunited in the nestbox after nine months flying around Europe and Africa. I hope they'll be back in 2024!

The Three Amigos.

Don't forget the Lows

To get a bit of balance to this blog, it is only fair to mention a few of the lows this year. The first was the continued impact of avian flu on local bird populations. This dreadful virus nearly wiped out the breeding attempts of several Yorkshire Black-headed Gull colonies this spring. Consequently, most of the gull flocks I have seen have contained only a handful of immatures; hopefully they will bounce back next year. My heart went out to colleagues who had to collect up hundreds of corpses to try and reduce the spread of the virus, which must have been really heartbreaking work for these dedicated birders and conservationists.
Secondly, the loss of local wildlife habitat continues. The two wader hotspots at Poppleton and Acaster Airfield that created so much enjoyment in the last couple of years have now been actively drained by the local farmers, removing this valuable habitat in a migration corridor. I have been doing what I can through my job to restore and create wildlife habitat though it feels like fighting against a tide of destruction at times. The ings at Bishopthorpe is threatened by a marina. This is a fantastic floodplain meadow, full of wildflowers, and hosting Snipe, Jack Snipe and Water Rail in winter. It is one of the few places I have seen Garganey away from the LDV in the York area, and yet some rich twerp wants to dig it all out so a handful of rich people can park their posh yachts.
Yorkshire continues to be an absolute disaster in terms of raptor persecution. The slaughter continues unabated despite the best efforts of the RSPB team, local police and others. Perhaps a new government in 2024 will bring about some serious change to this destructive industry?
From a birding perspective, it was a bummer not to find a rarity this year, despite a lot of effort, both on the coast and in the York area. Things ticked over of course, with Balearic Shearwater at Flamborough being the best I could muster on several seawatches, with Kittiwakes, Bar-tailed Godwits and a pair of very late storm-blown Arctic Terns the best I could do here in York. But I guess rare birds are just that: rare, and often the anticipation is the most thrilling part of birding. Whilst I don't twitch a great deal, I did manage to dip a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Blacktoft Sands in September and a Red-eyed Vireo at Bempton, and also failed to find my own York-area Dotterel in May or American Golden Plover in September, despite a lot of searching suitable fields. 
Another minor low, was not seeing a Yellow-browed Warbler this autumn, the first time that has happened in probably 30 or so years. Seeing Greenish, Dusky, Pallas's and Two-barred all at Flamborough kind of made up for it, but it remains a forlorn gap in my year-list. Numbers of migrants on the Yorkshire coast seemed reasonable, although the constant westerly in September really impacted on the numbers of migrants being seen down the coast in that month a factor that probably reduced the number of Yellow-brows arriving too. October was much better, with good arrivals of thrushes, Goldcrests and the like, and then of course the major Waxwing influx.

Keeping it Wild

Besides the birds, there was a lot of other wildlife to fill up this blog and my notebook. Off the coast, many Minke Whale sightings enthralled on our Yorkshire Coast Nature pelagics, but the really exciting moment came on 25th August, when a pod of four Common Dolphins bow-rode for several minutes. This is a really rare species in the North Sea. Even more intriguing was the Atlantic Flying Fish we saw a few days later - incredible scenes! Whilst fantastic to see, these creatures are a result of warming seas and should be heeded as a clear warning sign.

Common Dolphins

I added three new dragonflies to my British list: Red-veined Darter and Small Red-eyed Damselfly at Flamborough and Willow Emerald at Bempton. Again, these are all climate refugees, spreading northwards rapidly in response to warming conditions. 


Willow Emerald at Bempton, October.

The moth trap was used again in earnest and I had my first go with pheromone lures, both of which succesfully added to my growing moth list. The stand-out highlights, were seeing Geoff, the recently-named 'Hedge Beauty', thanks to James Lowen, and locating Lunar Hornet-moths in the Lower Derwent Valley and dazzling Red-tipped Clearwings in the village. Later in the summer, my old mate Dunc Poyser showed me the stunning Dewick's Plusia in his garden in the fens- cracking!


Red-tipped Clearwing, 'Geoff' and Lunar Hornet-moth

Two clear wildlife highlights this year both involved plants. Firstly, I secured a grant from Natural England to reintroduce Water Germander to Yorkshire. This is a little wetland plant that went extinct in the 1860s and is still incredibly rare in the UK. A successful introduction in Cambridgeshire inspired us to give this a go in Yorkshire and after a couple of years of research and work, we finally did this in September, planting out 150 Water Germander plants to its former haunt of Bolton-on-Swale. About a third we put into fenced exclosures - like the pic below - to prevent them being eaten - the rest we put outside. I am optimistic that the project will be successful! 

 JL together with volunteers from the Lower Ure Conservation Trust and Martin Hammond, ecologist

My involvement with the Lady's Slipper recovery programme grew this year and it has been great working closely with Kew, Natural England, BSBI and Plantlife. In the spring, I headed up a team which successfully secured money to continue the programme for another two years. This will fund the production of a large number of plants ready to be planted out at various site in North Yorkshire and elsewhere. As part of the project, I was delighted to be taken to the only known wild site, where the sole remaining plant grows. This was a little bit like visiting the holy grail - an orchid that has been a closely-guarded secret for almost a century. Thought to be extinct, this plant was chanced upon in this isolated spot by two teenagers in June 1930. It has been looked after ever since and it is pollen from this plant and other wild-sourced individuals that are propagated to produce the plants for reintroduction. The dream is for the species to start to reproduce naturally in the wild.

Lady's Slipper. Sad to see this incredible orchid behind chicken wire, but as Britain's rarest plant, it is a good idea to stop it getting chomped by a passing deer or rabbit!


Well, I could go on, but I need to crack on! Thanks to everybody who has sent me nice comments about this blog. It is only a repository for my ramblings and photos as a kind of online diary. The fact that people dip-in for a read is a bonus. I hope you all have a cracking, nature-filled 2024 and find peace and happiness with wildlife. Say hi to me if we bump into each other.

 JL October 2023, with Old Fall Plantation, Flamborough in the background.

Thursday 28 December 2023

Christmas Casp

At last, the floods ar Wheldrake Ings had abated slightly, so I thought I would give the gull roost a go. Duncan was in Tower Hide, but a lot of birds were roosting on the grassy spits protruding from the water in the main meadow, so I decided to watch from the bridge. This proved successful, when after a few minutes, a striking white head and black bill among the immature Herrings, caught my eye, and after watching it for a while, a fine first-winter Caspian Gull revealed itself. A very handsome bird, with distinctive jizz and plumage, making it stand out from the crowd. I rang Duncan who fortunately could see it from Tower. A little later, I picked up a first-winter Mediterranean Gull in the vicinity of the Caspian, which was a nice end to my first roost in a while. 


And the Med...

We estimated about 30,000 gulls in the roost: 39 Great Black-backed, 300+ Herrings, 10,000 Common and 20,000 Black-headeds. Also, 500 Golden Plovers and two Goosanders noted.

Mid-December Magic

Nipped out after lunchtime to look for a drake Smew that had been reported from Thorganby. On the way, I paused to have a look at a small flock of Waxwings feeding along the main street in Wheldrake. Three first-winters were present, feeding on the berries of a roadside Rowan.

On to Thorganby, where I bumped into a few local birding mates. The drake Smew, a tiny snowball of a duck was busy diving on the flood just north of the platform. Not the closest view ever, but always cracking to see. I watched this handsome 'white nun' for a while, then headed down to North Duff to see what was hanging out there. The four Scaup were still present on Bubwith Ings, but with deep flood water, that was about it. 

 Smew above, with Scaups in the pic below

Sunday 3 December 2023

The Colour Purple

Two Waxwings in Heworth on the way into York to go Christmas shopping yesterday was a bonus. They were still there on the way home mid-afternoon, but had moved on to Heworth Road.


I started out despite the foggy, snowy conditions by having a look for yesterday's Waxwings. They weren't there. I then went into the LDV, but only got as far as Bank Island. The fog was too thick, so I decided to head home, possibly coming back out this afternoon when the fog had cleared. As it turned out, Duncan Bye rang me as I was peeling carrots to tell me he had a dark wader on Wheldrake that looked like a Purple Sandpiper! Unexpected to say the least, but there have been a few inland in the last couple of weeks, presumably as birds move south for the winter. The recent foggy days could well have interupted this one's journey, and it had dropped in on the main flood. After a quick dash down to Wheldrake, I met up with Adam Firth and we soon located the Purple Sandpiper feeding distantly with the Dunlins, looking slightly larger and much darker than the other waders. Fantastic, a first for York and therefore a York tick for all of us, taking my York list to 227.


Duncan very happy with his find, and Adam enjoying the moment.

We walked round to where Duncan was watching it from to congratulate him on a great find. A few other locals joined us over the next half an hour to watch the bird in the murky conditions. Purple Sandpipers are the most coastal of waders, closely associated with rocky shores, where they seek invertebrates among seaweed covered rocks and mussel beds. They are common, but local on the Yorkshire coast, but inland they are always rare, so this is a great bird for the York area. 

The main flood was heaving with birds, with over 100 Dunlin, a dozen Ruff, plus lots of gulls and ducks. Unfortunately, in my haste I was under-dressed and after an hour I was frozen, so decided to head back.


York's first Purple Sandpiper. Honest!

Here is one in more usual habitat, on the end of South Gare in September, together with a Turnstone.



Later, I walked Luna with Vicky down to Acaster and back along the river. Last weekend's flock of 120 Golden Plovers had dwindled to 25. Near Naburn, there was an Otter in the middle of the river. Shortly, it caught a decent-sized fish and swam into the side to eat it. We walked down onto a pontoon and watched the Otter at close range, eating its catch under the shelter of the adjacent pontoon. Once it had finished its meal, it slid down into the water and swam straight underneath where we were sitting! They really are fearless, beautiful animals.

Sunday 26 November 2023


Sunday morning, and Castle Howard yielded little: 49 Tufted Ducks, 48 Teal and 10 Goldeneye. The two Scaup from earlier in the week had gone.

Heading for the LDV, news came through from Neil Cooper of the seven Waxwings he'd found yesterday still being present in Melbourne, which was handy as I would be passing through there on the way to Ellerton. Sure enough, the lads were present behind the Melbourne Arms pub in a tree. I showed the landlord and landlady the birds through my scope and shortly a guy came past, who also had a look. He said his name was Tom and that the birds were sitting in a tree in his garden, and if I wanted to go down his drive and have a closer look, that would be fine. Thanking Tom, I headed round there, past the Rowan tree where they were clearly feeding, and into his garden. The Waxwings were very close and unconcerned, happily trilling away and preening. I enjoyed good views for 15 minutes, before carrying on. Thanks Tom!



Waxwings preening: it takes effort to look this good!

On to Ellerton and a long walk down to the landing and then Hagg Lane, revealed c100 Tufted Ducks and 50 Pochards, plus 30 Pinkfeet, 50 Whooper Swans and not a lot else. c600 Golden Plovers and 30 Dunlins were in the field at Derwent Cottage Farm, Bubwith, with 8 Ruff on South Bubwith Ings. Later on, I walked down to Acaster and was pleased to find 120 Golden Plovers in the field north of Acaster.

Lingering Cold Northerly

Three weeks on since my last post and I am still feeling under the weather with a persistent cold. Talking of cold, a biting northerly roared down the North Sea yesterday and I had visions of it pushing a torrent of Little Auks, Ross's Gulls and Gyr Falcons in front of it, so after a restless night, I was off east to do some seawatching at Flamborough. I was a little perplexed and also dismayed to see virtually nothing in my first hour, save a monstrous grey sea, foaming and snarling offshore. Mid-morning I decided on a change of scenery and headed round the Old Fall Loop. In off the sea, three Siskins bounced, freshly arrived from Scandinavia. A missile rocketed up from below the cliffline to intercept the little finches; a hunting Merlin! It separated one unlucky Siskin off from the group and began a relentless aerial pursuit, with spectacular stoops, twists and dashing speed. The plucky Siskin was not going to give up easily, jinking aside at the last moment to avoid the Merlin's attacks. But after a while the Siskin's energy began to fail and high in the sky, the Merlin came from beneath and with a quick twist, turned on it's back and grasped the Siskin from underneath. 


There was nothing much on the sea off the south cliffs, with a single Eider and a pair of Common Scoters the only birds of note. I reached Old Fall, which despite being at the end of the rainbow held little either. 

Shortly, a message came through that the seawatchers had seen three Little Auks pass by. Well, there was nothing doing in the bushes, so I decided to head back. 


This proved a good move, and after a few minutes, picked up a Little Gull, shortly followed by a close-in Grey Phalarope! Conveniently, it landed on the sea just offshore and began feeding, allowing all present to pick it up. Five minutes after this and my first Little Auk pelted past, a tiny Arctic-bound pied streak. It seemed that the seabird passage had begun. A little later, Johnny Mac spotted another Grey Phalarope, this one much further out and moving steadily north. Cool. Over the next few hours, we notched up a further 19 Little Auks, including parties of three and two - see video. A Great Northern Diver went past north, among the many Red-throated Divers, with several Eiders, a Long-tailed Duck, two Sanderlings, Dunlin, Turnstone and Grey Plover. 

 Not easy to phonescope!


Sunday 5 November 2023

Feeling Rough

I was beginning to feel a bit rough towards the end of the week, but rather than sit under a blanket feeling sorry for myself this weekend, I headed out to Stone Creek, just east of Hull, to do some birding and get some fresh air. A series of large set-aside fields lies next to the north bank of the Humber and this is attracting large numbers of finches and small mammals, to feed on the thistle and other ruderal plant seeds. This abundance of food has attracted a range of raptors including a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard, which has lingered here for a couple of weeks now. 

The Rough-leg was present on arrival, sitting atop a large Hawthorn. A typical frosted-cream bird with large dark belly patch, and small beak. 

After 20 minutes or so, it took off, and flew steadily up river towards Paull. I lost it in to the distance, so switched my attention to two fantastic ringtail Hen Harriers quartering the fields, often coming really close. Further up the fields towards the Humber, three Short-eared Owls were cavorting around, seemingly enjoying the breeze and oblivious to the toggers snapping away with their mammoth lenses. A huge flock of Golden Plovers swirled over the Humber, with smaller flocks of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits and Curlews mixed in. No doubt a hunting Peregrine was disturbing them, but I didn't see it. After a while, I picked up the Rough-leg flying back towards the fields and obligingly, it landed on a Hawthorn for a while, though at the back of the fields. 

Shortly, the buzzard took off and began hunting, hovering into the wind, sometimes hanging into the strengthening breeze motionless, whilst at other times putting quite a lot of effort in, to maintain position. From the rear, the large white primary patches on the upperside of the wings, and the white-tail base were very eye-catching. 

Every so often, it would drop vertically, hover again, before dropping like an over-sized Kestrel on to a hapless vole or mouse. It was great to watch and gradually came really close. Unfortunately I didn't have my DSLR with me nor the phonescoping adaptor, so the footage is a bit ropey! The rain arrived on cue late morning and having grilled this cracking bird for a good hour or so, I decided to head back west.

At North Duffield Carrs, two Great Egrets were hunting voles on the rapidly submerging river bank, a ringtail Hen Harrier was flying about with several Marsh Harriers. A decent Aythya flock on Bubwith Ings held 30+ Pochards and over 50 Tufted Ducks. Hopefully this flock will increase and pull in something interesting.

Sunday 29 October 2023

Spritacular Flamborough!

Hit the Cape with old mate Dunc and our timing was spot-on. The day before, an arrival of rare birds had occurred at the Outer Head at Flamborough, in the Lighthouse Grasslands, including Flamborough's first Two-barred Warbler. We headed east early, hoping that some of these birds had stayed overnight. Emerging from the fog of the Yorkshire Wolds, sunny skies lit up the headland and I was slightly anxious that some of the migrants had moved on. To our delight, the main focus of our quest, Britain's eleventh Two-barred Warbler was apparently still bouncing around in the brambles. 

We headed straight down there. Fieldfares chacked overhead, whilst Goldcrests crept through the tussocky grass. Arriving in the right spot, I could see about a dozen birders watching a bramble patch. I asked a nearby birder if the bird was here. He grabbed my shoulder and pointed about five metres away. There hopping about on the near edge of the patch, was the stripy sprite. 

Flamborough's first Two-barred Warbler.

Tiny, but chunkier than a Yellow-brow, the bird moved through the brambles and grass straight towards us, showing off its double-wingbars, orange lower mandible and importantly, plain olive-green tertials. The greater covert bar was white, long and broad and contrasted with a rather yellow supercilium which was long and flared behind the eye. The half dozen birders present remained silent and stock-still, and the bird came within about two metres, giving us sensational views. I couldn't believe it, and as it zipped off into another bramble patch, I looked round, to see Dunc and the others all beaming massive smiles! A cracking start to the day. 

With so many birds around, we felt we'd head off round the Old Fall loop to see what we could find. Several Woodcocks exploded from their unseen hiding places, while a couple of showing off its double-wingbars, orange lower mandible to the beak and importantly, plain olive-green tertials Mealy Redpolls fed low down along the hedgeside. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares constantly dropped into the hedge, or scooted out as we approached, or evaded the attentions of three hunting Sparrowhawks.


Intriguingly, two Coal Tits flew out of the plantation and headed off high west across the fields; quite possibly continental immigrants, but with only flight views, I couldn't be sure. A few Siskins and Bramblings added to the scene, but we soon arrived back at the lighthouse, where news that a Pallas's Warbler, the most striped of sprites, had joined the Two-barred Warbler. Back to the lighthouse grassland we went. First, a Dusky Warbler showed briefly, but soon dived back into cover, true to their skulking form, Then, in a nearby bramble patch, the tiny sprite was located. 

The Pallas's Warbler remained hidden in the depths of the tangle, but every now and again, appeared on top of a briar, giving stunning views. Pallas's Warblers are one of the classic east coast October sibes and it is always makes my autumn if I get to see one. This bird gave sublime views, occasionally shooting vertically to snap an insect, almost appearing hummingbird-like. The pale lemon rump flashed as it darted across the tops of the dark brambles.

 Pallas's Warbler, Lighthouse Grasslands

With three fantastic warblers seen, it was time for a celebratory coffee from the cafe and a brief pause to decide on plans. Dunc hadn't yet seen the Red-headed Bunting, so off we trudged along the clifftop. A tense fifteen minutes after arriving at North Marsh, a birder spotted the rather drab bird sitting in a bramble. It had been feeding in the stubble field and had hopped up for a rest. Fortunately, it remained in position for several minutes, so everybody present managed to get great views. 

Red-headed Bunting at North Marsh.

Time was getting on, and with birds still arriving from the sea, we decided on one last tramp round the Lighthouse Grasslands. A few Bramblings were fresh in on the Motorway Hedge, and the Fog Station compound held several Robins and a very dark Song Thrush. Redwings fed desperately on the clifftop path and yet more Fieldfares came in off.

Song Thrush, Goldcrest, Redwing: Three common, but fantastic east coast migants.

Our day had rushed by in a flurry of exciting birds and hordes of common migrants. It had been fantastic and it was hard to drag ourselves away, yet Manchester was calling, where later we would finish the day watching two of our favourite bands.