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.