Thursday 26 January 2023

Willow TIt Dawn

I met Julia Lewis from BBC Radio York in Askham Bog at dawn this morning, to do a live piece for the radio to promote the Big Garden Birdwatch.

The bog woke up with the first rays of sun; Robins heralded the dawn, with alarming Blackbirds warning of unseen threats in the dark. Soon, a Wren and a Dunnock added their calls to the twilight and Carrion Crows, Magpies and Woodpigeons moved overhead. I was hoping we might find Willow Tits and sure enough, as the sky lightened, a pair turned up near the pond, wheezing from the willow scrub, giving excellent close views. 

A good flock of about 50 Siskins provided plenty of entertainment, feeding high in the Alders at times making the whole canopy sparkle. A Nuthatch was unexpected but welcome and a trio of Bullfinches fed quietly in a Guelder Rose behind the pond. A few Redpolls bounced around and one appeared close by, feeding on the boardwalk.

All in all a lovely start to the working day.

Sunday 22 January 2023

York Wax

I forgot to mention that on the way out to the forest yesterday, Rich and me stopped off in York, to check out a Waxwing that had been found the previous day. 

We spotted the Waxer atop a large tree as we came round the roundabout near Skeldergate Bridge. Rich put his hazards on and stopped the traffic while I binned it through the windscreen. 

We parked up and joined Ollie for a closer look.  It stayed put, casually preening in the tree. It looked like an adult. Stacks of Redwings, Fieldfares and even Mistle Thrush were gorging on the Rowan berries, giving great views. 

Winter Ouzel

The hard weather turned up a very unexpected bird just across the river yesterday, a male Ring Ouzel. Found in a Naburn garden by Jeremy Pierson, this thrush should be in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It was still present today, feeding on ornamental crab apples with a bunch of Blackbirds and Fieldfares and when Jeremy invited me to have a look, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, a man with a van had turned up to pump out a drain just before I arrived and he had flushed the bird. I waited, with Ollie and Jeremy for about twenty minutes, warmed by a welcome cuppa kindly provided by Jeremy. I began to get a bit anxious as I had to go and pick my daughter up, but having spotted another crab apple tree, we switched our attention and sure enough, there was the dapper Ouzel, feeding on the grass below the tree. After a brief view, it flew up on to a fence and then into a tree. A nice view, if brief, of what could be York's first winter record of a Ring Ouzel.

Thanks again to Jeremy, who also let me use one of his pics of the bird, below.

Times are hard

This long period of hard weather is making it tough for the birds.We only get Fieldfares in the garden when they're getting desperate and four turned up shortly after I'd restocked the apples on the lawn early this morning and got busy munching them, joining c14 Blackbirds. After they'd boosted their energy, one particularly boldly-marked male began defending one end of the garden against all comers; behaviour I have witnessed before with this species. It is cracking to see these birds in the garden at such close range. Milder weather is coming, so hopefully they will get through.

Goshawk Season


Did a reccy with Rich ahead of our season of Goshawk Tours, which start soon. 

It was an icy start, with Crossbills, whose calls were the soundtrack of the day, eating snow at the side of the track. I have not seen them do this before, but I realise they need to keep hydrated and in the freezing weather, they haven't got a lot of choice. Siskins buzzed around and I soon picked up our first Gos, an adult female, perched in a tree across the valley, long white body gleaming like a beacon in the winter sun. She flew up into a pine higher up the ridge, scattering Woodpigeons like confetti, that blew across the hillside. After a bit, she melted away into the forest. Shortly, an immature male came along the ridge and gave us a great flypast, as it headed east. Later, we checked out a couple of new sites; still plenty of Crossbills and a handful of more Gos sightings: another immature male and also an adult male, which flew right overhead, eyeballing us. A female called harshly, unseen in the adjacent forest, so it seems we'd located a territory. As we walked back, we flushed an immature of the ground, which had been perched on some forestry brash. It melted away through the Larch. If only we'd seen it before it flew! A fantastic, magical day with these incredible birds. 

Top pic: Immature (second calendar-year) male Goshawk; lower two, adult male Goshawk.

Bottom three pics - the same immature as above, by Richard Baines - Yorkshire Coast Nature.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Schwarze Kappe

A male Blackcap turned up in the garden last week and keeps me entertained when working at home and enduring Teams calls. To start with, he fed only on half apples, skewered on twigs in the bushes, but has learnt to feed on the fatballs and today on the sunflower heart feeders. It has even descended on to the lawn to feed on a piece of apple that fell off the twig. Perhaps this ability to learn quickly has helped Blackcaps to adapt to wintering in the UK, relying on hand outs of bird food in harsh weather. Whatever, this German visitor is a welcome treat.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Wading Through


The flood is still rising at Wheldrake Ings but the site is still accessible as far as Tower Hide, if you don your waders! Adam and myself waded through the water and then waded through a mesmerising flock of 10,000 Black-headed and Common Gulls, with c10 Great Black-backed and c150 Herring Gulls. As the light faded in parallel with my hope of finding something amongst the horde, I latched on to a smart adult Mediterranean Gull. Always a delight, the bird sported a partial hood and Persil-white wingtips. Five Goosanders came into roost and two Marsh Harriers sailed high south, but otherwise, little of note.


Local Surprise

An early trip to check out Castle Howard, despite the poor forecast. No sign of the Ring-necked Duck which was last recorded on 5th January. The Ferruginous Duck was present with 37 Tufties at the west end and after a while, started bathing, so I videoed it with my phone just in case it ended with a wing-flap; it did! The duck seemed to be unringed, but the wingflap showed it to be completely lacking primaries on its right wing, indicating it has likely escaped from captivity. How it arrived at Castle Howard is a mystery and it would be interesting to see if it can still fly. Seventy four Mandarins were lined up on the far bank, and the air was filled with the piping of displaying Teal, who seemed to be feeling very spring-like, unlike the dreary weather. Nine Little Grebes was also of interest.

 Bathing Fudge


I headed back to York to do some jobs and popped in to have a look over Hogg's Pond, Dringhouses, as my Dad said there was a few more Tufties on there. To my delight, among about 20 Tufties was a female Scaup, a nice local surprise. This pond has had a few good birds in the past, such as Slavonian Grebe, Common Scoter and Red-throated Diver, so is always worth a look if passing. Since the pond was bought by draconian new owners who are focussed on private fishing, there is no access and the pond is viewed only through the gaps between houses from the road bridge. With better access and more coverage, I am sure this pond would continue to turn stuff up.

Female Scaup.

Thursday 5 January 2023

LDV Winter Magic

I have been spending a fair bit of time in the Lower Derwent Valley, both birding for fun but also leading some guided tours for Yorkshire Coast Nature. Flooding last month inundated the ings either side of the Derwent, resulting in an influx of wildfowl and waders, bringing spectacular sights and sounds to the winter landscape. The floodplain meadows under their covering of water now hummed to the wheeling flocks of Golden Plovers and Lapwings, constantly nervous from the occasional appearance of a Peregrine or Marsh Harrier. Vast flocks of Wigeon and Teal, looking resplendant in their winter plumage fed in the shallow water and here and there the Clark Gable of ducks, the Pintail, sailed serenely through the crowds. 

There have been some scarcities around too, with a regular juvenile Hen Harrier appearing at North Duffield Carrs and Wheldrake Ings, providing some fantastic views, sometimes in close company and sparring with some of the Marsh Harriers. Hen Harriers have had a good breeding season in England this year, so hopefully we may see more of these wonderful birds over the next few months. 

Great Egret bottom left and Hen Harrier on bush top right!

Great Egret at North Duffield Carrs

Adult Mediterranean Gull, Wheldrake Ings

A Great Egret has been hanging out along the river at North Duffield Carrs, occasionally straying on to the ings, where I watched it hunting voles; it caught and swallowed two while I watched. There are still several Cetti's Warblers around the valley and a couple of wintering Chiffchaffs, with Willow Tits still prominent in some spots. 

As I write, temperatures have plummeted and the ings have frozen, so I expect some hard-weather movements among birds, perhaps resulting in some more interesting sightings in the LDV.

York's First Pallid Swifts

The UK has seen an impressive influx of Pallid Swifts in the last week or two. Not unprecedented per se, but exceptional in the number of birds that have been swept up from the Mediterranean by southerly winds. Most Common Swifts have departed Europe by August, whereas Pallid Swifts continue to breed much later, with the latest fledging in southern Spain in the second week of October (BWP). With this in mind, it is highly likely that virtually all of the swifts reported during this influx are Pallids and certainly all of the birds seen well and/or photographed have proven to be this species.

Following Andrew Schofield's brief sighting of a 'swift species' over Bolton Percy on the 24th October, another was seen over Thorganby on Sunday and this seems to be a Pallid from photographs. 

On 1st November, Adam Firth spotted a swift from his house at Elvington moving towards Wheldrake. It was relocated from the Bank Island platform a little later by Tim Jones as it moved back north where I was fortunate enough to see the bird flying along over the fields distantly; sadly too distantly to aid with the idenfication, beyond 'swift sp.'! The bird was feeding mainly to the north of Bank Island around Cheesecake Farm and at one point fed low over Bank Island itself, allowing three observers including Craig Ralston and Dave Waudby to confirm the identity of the bird as a Pallid Swift. This may be the same bird that was seen over Thorganby two days previously, but with such a major influx taking place in the UK currently, it is just as likely to be a different bird. 

It remains to be seen what BBRC make of these three records, but I am optimistic that the Thorganby and Bank Island birds are accepted. Exciting times! 

I have been fortunate to co-find a Pallid Swift in Yorkshire before, at Flamborough Head back in 2011 - see here

Pic by Audun Eriksen

New Year Birding!

Happy New Year 2023!

I don't often get out to do much birding on New Year's Day, due to family commitments and sometimes rather lousy hangovers. To my delight then, I was able to get down to Wheldrake Ings on New Year's Day afternoon to do the roost. No better way to start my 2023 birding!

A couple of Marsh Harriers were spooking a large mixed flock of Lapwings and Golden Plovers, creating havoc and filling the air with a real wildlife spectacle. Thousands of Wigeon and Teal were gathered on the water, keeping a close eye on the hunting raptors. Eight Ruff were flying about and the female Scaup was present on Swantail, feeding with the Tufties.

As the afternoon wore on, gulls began to come in. Annoyingly, they roosted on Swantail but the light was good and there was  little wind, so I was able to pick out a first-winter Mediterranean Gull followed by a first-winter Caspian Gull, both good birds to start the year. We estimated about 10,000 Black-headeds in the roost, but comparatively few Common Gulls, with maybe only 500. There were about 100 Herrings and 20 or so Great Black-backeds, so a bit down on recent weeks.

It was good to meet a few friends in the hide too, to swap stories and talk about the year ahead. We walked back in the dwindling light, listening to an unseasonal Song Thrush signing behind Tower Hide.

Tuesday 3 January 2023

The Mighty Thor!

New Year's Eve, and up early to drop Vicky and Addie at the railway station; they were heading to the Royal Albert Hall to watch the Nutcracker. Whilst I would love to see a Nutcracker, the ballet is not one of my top interests, so I planned to head out to Castle Howard for another look at the Ring-necked Duck - if it was still there - and hopefully get better views than I had the day before in the failing light. 

Heading east down the A64 I received an incredible message: Walrus in Scarborough Harbour! What the ****?! 

My mind raced, and instead of turning left towards CHL, I gunned east towards Malton and the coast. 

A short ride later, and I arrived on to Scarborough seafront just before 9am. I drove north past a crowd of about 50 people peering over the railings into the harbour - this was a good sign! Finding a spot on the roadside, I legged it back to the south end of the harbour and joined the throng. To my amazement, there, only five metres a way, dozing on the cobbled slipway was a vast behemoth, complete with sabre-tusks:  the Walrus! I was particularly impressed by his muzzle, covered in pencil-thick wiry bristles, which are apparently used for detecting food in the soft sediment of the seabed. His toenails were pretty cool too, a few inches in from the end of his leathery flippers. He was an impressive animal and every so often would lift his head to glance around with his tiny eyes, showing off his whopping tusks. He shuffled further up the slipway as the cold water of the rising tide lapped at his flippers. 

The giant pinniped was totally unbothered by the assembled throng of admirers, letting off steamy breaths into the cold morning air. The gasps of awe and amazed smiles from the people around me added to the sense of wonder I felt, witnessing the first Atlantic Walrus to be seen in Yorkshire. What a privilege. This was a three year old male, named Thor, who was originally seen in Petten, Holland on 6th November, before travelling to Brittany and then north to the south coast of England, where he hung out at Pagham Harbour and Calshot in the middle of December. He hadn't been seen since, until pitching up on this slipway, late last night. 


The local police and British Divers Marine Life Rescue had responded quickly and cordoned off the slipway. They were present in numbers making sure Thor was left in peace and that admirers were given information about him. Everybody present behaved impeccably and it was great to see the delight on the faces of everybody who saw him, especially the children. 

I was absolutely stoked to see Thor, having missed one of his cousins on the Scillies in summer 2021 by one day! I hope this is a one-off and not some climate-related problem that these incredible creatures are facing in their Arctic homes, forcing them to wander south.

At the time of writing, Thor has made a reappearance; in the yacht club at Blyth in Northumberland (2-3 January). Hopefully his welcome will be as warm there, as it was in Scarborough.


I headed off just before 10am and stopped off at Castle Howard Lake on the way past. The Ring-necked Duck was showing beautifully at the west end (near the road), busily diving with the Tufties. Lovely. 



Some more of Thor....

Christmas Present

Vicky gave me a great birthday present this year: a day of birding in North Norfolk, with a night at Thornham Deli. What's more, we were ditching the kids and the dog at the in-laws, allowing whinge-free fun! 

 We managed to get away just after lunch from the in-laws in North Hertfordshire and took advantage of the dry weather to check out the saltmarsh at Warham Greens. First, a Marsh Harrier cruised past, closely followed by a ringtail Hen Harrier and a Merlin. A delight to see this trio, but I was hoping for something a little rarer! Right on cue, the orangy juvenile female Pallid Harrier winged her way across the saltmarsh just after 3.30pm. At one point, she tailed the Hen Harrier closely, allowing a great comparison through the scope. She headed back west, flushing the Merlin which had perched up on a pine tree- see video below. The Pallid Harrier remained distant, though her pale ruff, dark secondaries and plain orange underparts could be made out through the scope, along with her slighter frame and narrower wingtips.


We ate heartily in the Jolly Sailor Pub that evening and enjoyed a few pints. The strong winds abated suddenly during the night and were succeeded by rain and gloomy skies. Not to be defeated, we headed to Brancaster to look for a Hume's Warbler that had been wintering by the pool, just west of the beach road. The weather was poor, but after a while, I could hear the Hume's calling from the large Sallows on the far side of the pool. I hoped it would follow a circuit of the pool and after about 15 minutes it began calling much more closely at the east end of the pool. I headed down there and quickly picked up the bird as it moved through the bushes. A typically pallid, grey-green phyllosc,with dark bareparts and duller buff greater covert wingbar and supercilium. The bird approached quite close and I managed to get a record shot, despite my camera being soaked and the light being dreadful. The little spryte moved off through the bushes and vanished; I headed back to the car to dry off.

We headed over to Titchwell for a coffee and some hide birding, to keep out of the weather, though it was already too late for my soaked trousers! We had an enjoyable couple of hours here, although I couldn't locate the Long-billed Dowitcher from the previous day. In fact, there were few waders on the marsh, apart from a handful of Avocets, Dunlin and Grey Plovers. A Greenshank on the brackish marsh was a bonus and a few Red-breasted Mergansers were on the leaden sea.

Next up was Holkham, where a herd of about 100 Euro White-fronted Geese were grazing in the field by the coast road. We headed down to the beach and checked out the sea - more mergansers, Common Scoters and several Great Crested Grebes (it was too windy to spend too much time looking)- before heading west, where we located the eleven wintering Shore Larks in the roped-off area. They fed very close to the path, completely unbothered by our presence; absolutely stunning birds. A nice end to a most thoughtful Christmas present.