Friday 30 June 2023

Halcyon, and on...

The weather has been a bit too gloomy today to be considered the halcyon days of summer, but spending time with the halycon bird, the Kingfisher, certainly brightened up the morning. A pair were showing incredibly well from the pool hide at Wheldrake Ings, diving into the water repeatedly and sitting on the perch and in a nearby overhanging willow. I see Kingfishers regularly, but usually just a flash of electric blue arse shooting low up the river. To see them like this and to be able to get a bit of phonescoped video was a real treat. 

Three young Common Terns have fledged from the raft and were busy trying out their wings, whilst waiting for the parents to bring in fish. The LDV is pretty much a duck factory at the moment, with broods of eight Garganey ducklings seen and several Gadwall and Shoveler broods. Little Egrets and Grey Herons seem to have done ok too this year, with 14 of the former on the pool. Several well-grown Lapwing chicks were on Bank Island, suggesting they've managed to breed successfully too. 

Also, three adult Black-tailed Godwits were presumably early returning 'autumn' birds. 


Good to see this brood of Garganey ducklings growing well.

A pair of very fresh Commas were doing their best to warm-up in the cool temperatures, along with a Large Skipper and many Banded Demoiselles.

Sunday 25 June 2023

Yorkshire's Tiny Endemic

Spent the day walking round Ingleborough NNR with a varied group of people, discussing the revision to the NNR management plan. We ended the day at Sulber Common and I asked Andrew Hinde who was leading the day if we could have a look for Yorkshire Sandwort, which only grows here on the whole world! I had looked for this tiny white flower without success before, but with 20 well-trained pairs of eyes searching, we soon came across a scatter of small clumps of this flower growing in gravelly flushes amid the limestone. It is really similar to Spring Sandwort, which is pretty scarce too, but lacks purple spots on the anthers (looking through the wrong-end of my bins helped!) and the leaf-shape is different, being broader. It was good to have a couple of expert botanists at hand to confir the ID.


Last week, I was lucky enough to spend a few hours on the Craven limestone, with Kevin Walker, one of the UK's best botanists. He very kindly showed me Dwarf Milkwort and Jacob's-ladder, both new for me, along with Alpine (possbly Cryer's) Cinquefoil and several Cistus Forester moths. All fantastic stuff! 

 Cistus Forester on Salad Burnet, and the tiny but rare Dwarf Milkwort. Below, Jacob's-ladder.

Hotly Tipped

Craig at the LDV kindly leant me some pheromone lures to check out some of the Ouse valley sites for clearwing moths. They are every bit as beautiful as they are enigmatic and until the availability of artificial sex pheromone lures, they were very difficult to see and went mostly unrecorded. Female moths use pheromones to attract a mate, and the little males can detect tiny quantities of this potent perfume from a great distance. Scientists have developed synthetic species-specific pheromones which are now commercially available. Clearwings are well-named, lacking scales on most of their wings, meaning they are transparent, apart from some coloured patches. They are day-flying and related to the burnet moths and are said to mimic wasps in order to reduce predation. 

I had a walk round a village loop and put out Craig's Currant Clearwing lure near the old allotments and then my own Lunar Hornet Clearwing lure by the river. Checking back after a little while and I was surprised to see several clearwings around the first lure. The presence of an obvious red belt excluded the expected Currant Clearwing, and the presence of vivid red wing-tips, showed them to be Red-tipped Clearwings. Fantastic! I then realised I'd put the wrong lure out, so it was hardly surprising I'd attracted this species. After getting a couple of pics, I put the lure back in the pot, to allow the little males to go about their business and track down a real female, not a rubber bung hung on a bit of string! I checked down by the river, but sadly no Lunar Hornets had appeared. Maybe another day!

Thursday 22 June 2023

Unexpected Kite

Adam Firth found yet another good bird out of his window late afternoon yesterday, a Black Kite (following Pallid Swift in November!). He suspected a bird that had joined the local Red Kites and Buzzards feeding over a cut hay field was this species and managed to get a couple of photos, which looked very good for Black Kite. Having just got home from work, I shot over to Elvington, meeting Duncan by the side of the road. To our delight I picked up a kite almost immediately; it was head on, but looked compact and when it turned, we both exclaimed 'it's a Black Kite!' simultaneously. The bird circled over the fields and then appeared to drop down. 


Meeting up with Adam and then Ollie we headed over to where I thought it had dropped and after a few tense minutes, Ollie picked it up feeding in the stubble. 


After a while, it was flushed by a Red Kite and it flew up and proceeded to spar with the Red, giving wonderful views. It then landed in a dead Oak, giving incredible views in the evening sunshine. Big smiles and high fives all round, and congratulations to Adam for finding this super bird. 



Black Kite carrying food, seemingly a young Pheasant killed by the grass-cutting.

The Kite had a yellow eye and cere and seemed to be in wing moult, so I wondered if this was a different bird to the one I saw in Helmsley back in April, as it seemed to be an older bird. If accepted, this will be the third record for the York area following one at Bubwith in 1979 and then the surprise pair of juveniles at Wheldrake Ings, on 2nd August, 2020. However, it is the first to be twitchable. We left the bird in peace and it seemed to drop back into the field to feed. Apparently, it roosted in a tree late evening so will no doubt be seen again tomorrow. 

Handy comparisons of Black and Red Kites. Note the Black Kite's more compact shape, shorter tail and  broader wing-tips with a sixth visible primary finger. The plumage is generally dull brown, with paler head and a prominent upperwing covert bar, which unlike on the Red Kite doesn't meet across the back. The tail is also less forked than the Red Kite.

 L-R: Ollie Metcalfe, Jono Leadley, Adam Firth and Duncan Bye - Very happy York birders!

Sunday 18 June 2023

Swooping in my Mother's undercroft

Well, George off Blackadder used to watch the Marsh Warblers swooping in his mother's undercroft, but unfortunately, despite the recent influx, I have not managed to pull one of these scarce acros out of the undergrowth in the York area, or my Mother's undercroft for that matter (what is an undercroft?!). I twitched a reported bird at North Duffield Carrs mid-week, but the record seems spurious to say the least. I have checked out quite a few likely spots along the Ouse Ings and Derwent Ings, but to no avail. This felt strangely reminiscent of the Blyth's Reed Warbler influx a couple of springs ago; they were turning up everywhere but not in York, despite plenty of good habitat. 

I finally gave in, and as a Father's Day treat to myself, I planned to get up early and head out to West Yorkshire, to check out a Marsh Warbler that had turned up a couple of days ago. 

To my astonishment, after a month of dry weather, I awoke to rain pattering down on the scorched front garden. The smell was incredible and I took a few deep lungfulls before hopping in the car. Hopefully the Marsh Warbler would still be present. It is always a little nerve-wracking going without news!

Arriving on site, I walked along the floodbank and as soon as I approached the area where the bird had been hanging out, I could hear it, twittering and mimicking away somewhere in the Willow scrub. I made my way through the soaking long grass, to a point where there was a gap in the bushes, and where another birder was standing, looking over a patch of reedswamp/tall herb fen, surrounded by bushes. 

This was the little patch of habitat that the Marsh Warbler fancied to try his luck. After a bit, a grey acro shot across the top of the vegetation and landed in the low branches of the Willow, before pouring forth a stream of crazy sounds, in true Palustris-style. Among strange chattering and twittering notes, the Marsh Warbler wove in sequences of incredibly accurate mimickry. The most favoured species were Blue Tit, Swallow, Whitethroat and Chiffchaff and they were all so good, you could easily think the birds were present! There were a range of other calls, some of which may have related to African species as it has been discovered that they do pick up calls and songs from their wintering grounds too. Some of the sweet, possibly 'original' notes were quite distinctive and there was little in the way of harsh Reed or Sedge Warbler-esque notes in the song.

I watched him on and off for the next couple of hours. He seemed to have a fairly regular routine, singing for 15 minutes of so, before returning to the tall herbs and low bushes, presumably to feed for five minutes. He would usually sing in the lower half of the Willow, but once moved to very near the top, about 12 feet above ground.

Typical Marsh Warbler jizz, with short spiky beak, dull supercilium and obvious lower eye-ring. Overall body colour quite grey-brown, very unlike the gingery Reed Warblers nearby. The wings are long, with noticeable pale primary tips. The tertials have obvious dark centres.

Underparts dingy buff-cream with strikingly-white throat. 

Various videos of the Marsh Warbler. It showed pretty well during bouts of singing and also preening regularly, once the sun came out and his feathers started to dry off. 

Also noted, two Cetti's Warblers, Garden Warbler, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Willow Warblers, Swifts and a pair of Great Crested Grebes with two well-grown chicks.

Arable weeds?

I hate the term 'weeds', just as much as I hate the words pests, vermin and nuisance. Seeing nature as something a bit inconvient, a bit of a nuisance, is so, so sad. All these plants and animals have evolved over millennia to be perfectly suited to their environment. They have adapted to conditions that we often inadvertently create during our day to day activities, which sometimes brings them into conflict with ourselves.

Weeds are described as plants that are not in the right place, growing where they are not wanted - dandelions growing on a formal lawn for instance, or poppies in a wheat field. But that is only our perception of the wrong place; these so-called weeds are just plants growing in the conditions to which they have naturally evolved to suit, over thousands and thousands of years. It is only because some people abhor their presence that they have been given this denigrating moniker. How narrow-minded (some members of) our species have become in the last few centuries! 

Plants suited to frequently disturbed soil flourished as humans learnt to cultivate crops. The regular tilling of soil, created the early successional conditions within which a whole group of plants called, somewhat ironically, arable weeds, thrive. As our agriculture became more sophisticated, commercial and ruthless, herbicides eradicated all of these 'unwanted' plants to the extent that the majority are now incredibly rare. What were once abundant plants have virtually been wiped from the face of our intensively agricultural landscape. Fluellens, poppies, Corn Marigolds, Cornflowers, Shepherd's-needle etc have all become very rare and some species only now occur where conservationists purposefully recreate the conditions these plants need to survive. On our recent trip to Weeting Heath Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, the warden, a fantastic botanist, James Symonds, very kindly took us for a tour of the arable weed field. This is a small patch of land which is cultivated with a very old grain crop, using no artificial fertilisers or chemicals and the result is astonishing; a glimpse back into how farm fields would have looked a century or so ago. The crop was open, the crop plants were of varied height, and among the crop grew a range of arable plants. Many of these were staggeringly rare, although abundant in this one small field. Three types of endangered speedwell grew here: Fingered, Spring and Breckland. 


Fingered Speedwell, Weeting.

They all thrived in these conditions and virtually nowhere else in Britain. They would have once been common everywhere. Prickly Poppies, Field Pansies, Broad-fruited Corn-salad and Fine-leaved Sandwort grew on the bare earth. 

Many of these plants are annuals, and their tiny seeds are sought out by Turtle Doves and other farmland birds which are also struggling in our intensive agricultural world. Their blooms provide a good source of nectar and pollen for insects. The loss of our arable weeds has therefore devastated a whole ecosystem.

Smooth Cat's-ear, Weeting.

This was a real treat and we could have spent the whole day here. Our next stop was Cranwich Camp where we found a couple more rare plants, the Spanish Catchfly and Proliferous Pink, the latter only in bud. The calcareous influence of the grassland here was very apparent, with Salad Burnet, Bird's-foot Trefoil and Mouse-ear Hawkweed growing in profusion.

The Brecks are a truly astonishing area for rare plants, insects and wildlife. So little of it is left in its original state, so it is hard to imagine how amazing it must have been a century or two ago, when sand dunes swept the area engulfing whole villages, and Great Bustards strode about alongside the still-present Stone Curlews. Nevertheless, the efforts of the various conservation organisations and individuals have ensured this is still a remarkable place. 

Spanish Catchfly, Cranwich Camp

Saturday 10 June 2023

Military Parade

Had a look at the Mildenhall Military Orchids while I was in the vicinity. An incredibly rare plant, they were thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in 1947. They are confined to this site and two in the Chilterns. They were fresher than this time last year when they had just started to go-over. The species gets it name from the hood formed by the upper petals, which is reminiscent of an old-style soldier's helmet, atop a rather human-like flower. 

The orchid apparently smells of vanilla, but the area where they grow is - rightly - cordoned off, so I didn't get close enough to verify that! A few stunted Southern Marsh Orchids and prominent Common Twayblades were among the ranks of regal Military Orchids. 

Moth Book-ends

June had arrived with a cold northeasterly still blowing and weeks of dry weather. Strange times.

I met up with old mate James Lowen to lead a Wildlife Travel tour of Norfolk for a few days. The trip was a great success - more of that later - but my week was book-ended by two fab little moths (with a few crackers in between too!), both thanks to James.

The first moth was this exquisite Yellow-legged Clearwing, which James had caught in his garden. The caterpillars feed on Oak wood apparently. 

Moth traps in the garden at Crostwick and at Weeting Heath (thanks to NWT's James Symonds) added a good number of moths to our trip list, and for me a number of new species, including Fen Crest, Reed Dagger, Reddish Light Arches and Bird's Wing, along with some cracking Breckland specials which I also saw last year, such as Clouded Buff and Lunar Yellow-underwing.

A female Fox Moth (a vixen?!), trapped at Weeting Heath. 


After the trip had finished, James asked me if I wanted to meet Geoff. 

I had heard a lot about him on Twitter and various forums over the past couple of years, so this was an exciting opportunity. I met up with James west of Norwich early on Friday morning, to give it a go . The sun was shining and James felt optimistic about our chances. 

Within a few minutes of arrival at a rather large bramble patch, James' laser eyes latched on to our target and he proudly exclaimed 'there's Geoff!". Sure enough, perched in what can only be described as a jutting, stag-like posture, was a tiny, but macho micromoth, Alabonia geoffrella: 'Geoff'!. 

He glittered in the early morning sun, showing off rediculourly elongated palps, white antenna and very dapper white knee-socks. Black-spangled gun-metal/blue strips bedecked his wings, setting off burnt-orange wingtips with two triangular cream patches. What a corker! 

This tiny jewel is fairly widespread and probably under-recorded. It hasn't been recorded in Yorkshire for several decades, so my quest will be to check out a few bramble patches over the next few weeks and see if I can find Geoff. 

All photos kindly provided by James. Check out his website here, where you can also read his blog and buy his fab books.

*Post script: Geoff was apparently seen in 2022 in South Yorkshire, the first record in the county for 65 years. So, I have been beaten to it, but I will still see if I can find him myself.

Friday 2 June 2023

Rufous-morph Cuckoo

A couple of weeks ago, a rather misty early morning visit to Wheldrake Ings following my dawn Turtle Dove survey revealed a couple of calling male Cuckoos, and a stunning rufous-morph female. According to the literature, less than 10% of females occur in this attractive gingery colouration (although the frequency varies regionall), with the rest being the typical grey. This bird is presumably the same female that was around last spring too. One of the males was certainly finding her very alluring and was getting quite excited, chasing her around the pool-side willows.


A Squacco Heron was seen at Filey Dams on Friday 26th May. It flew off late afternoon and I speculated that it might turn up the next day in the LDV; it didn't! 

A couple of days later, it was discovered at Potter Brompton to the southwest of Scarborough, close to the River Hertford, a tributary of the Derwent: a little nearer at least! I was tempted to twitch it, but didn't really have chance, so when the news came through that Mal Richardson had found it at Bank Island yesterday morning, I dropped everything and shot down there. To my delight, the bird was showing on arrival, in the nearest area of reedswamp. Mal had apparently picked it up scanning with Craig's bins from the back of the office! The bird stalked about catching unknown prey, frequently disappearing behind clumps of vegetation. I watched it for half an hour enjoying the social with lots of familiar faces turning up to see it, and also noted Great and Little Egrets on the flash, plus several Grey Herons. 

Early afternoon, it unexpectedly flew south and was refound later by Alan Whitehead at his old patch of North Duffield Carrs, where it is still present at the time of writing. 

This is the York area's first Squacco Heron and it was a dream to see it at Bank Island, so big congrats to Mal for finding it. This is my fourth British Squacco, but my first in Yorkshire, so I am very pleased to have seen it. This is only the fourth Yorkshire Squacco since the turn of the century, with one in East Yorkshire for a couple of days in May 2020, following one at Kilnsea Wetlands in June-July 2018 and one also at Kilnsea/Spurn in September 2010.


A smart pale male Honey Buzzard cruised past the Wykeham Raptor Viewpoint at lunchtime, showing off his long tail and slight head. The dipped-in-ink primary tips and neat black trailing edge to the wing  indicate his gender along with the lack of banding along the middle of the secondary feathers. 

Also, a vocal Garden Warbler, two Goshawks, several Crossbills and lots of noisy Siskins.