Monday 22 January 2024

January Daze

It was cold last week, with hard frosts and night-time temperatures plummeting to minus six. Birds flocked to the garden; there have been one or two Lesser Redpolls on the feeders again, but best of all, two handsome male Bramblings appeared on Friday, one of which fed from a feeder for a while. They got flushed by something and sadly didn't return. 

I led a tour round the LDV on Saturday, for Yorkshire Coast Nature. It was tricky as most of the floodwater was frozen and consequently most of the ings were devoid of birds. The upside was that all the ducks and waders were concentrated along the ice-free river, with hordes of Wigeon and Teal attracting the attention of Marsh Harriers and a Peregrine, which caused much anxiety among the ducks. 

Despite the cold, a few hundred Dunlin were flying around, settling on the field near Bubwith Bridge along with a white-headed Ruff, to wait out the cold. Round at Wheldrake, we were able to get down to the windpump for the first time in weeks. By mid-afternoon, temperatures had finally begun to rise and the ice was beginning to melt. On the refuge, we located a pair of Smew, presumably the same birds that had been at Thorganby recently until the ice froze them out. A female Scaup was with the Tufted Duck flock and another Peregrine was hunting along the canal, flushing seven Black-tailed Godwits (there were two others standing on the ice with the ducks) and a few Curlews. I bade farewell to my group and then squelched back to Tower Hide to do the roost with Adam and Duncan. Duncan paid more interest than the rest of us in a small egret that flew past. I was too busy looking at the arriving gulls but when Duncan said for the second time that it looked interesting, I decided to have a look. The bird dropped into a distant field right next to a cow, and when it started pacing forward picking things up out of the grass, we realised Duncan was right; it was a Cattle Egret! 

A little later, my scope settled on a smart first-winter Caspian Gull among the hordes of Herring Gulls. The light was failing so my pics weren't great, but it was a good-looking bird nevertheless and a nice way to end a good, but challenging day in the valley.

Sunday dawned mild and sunny. I had things to do but managed to get out birding early afternoon, so I headed down to Wheldrake again. The thaw had really worked its magic and the sodden ings were now covered in birds. I spent ages looking through the hordes of ducks for something rare, but failed. However, the female Scaup was still present, and had been joined by a handsome drake. 

The gulls began to arrive mid-afternoon, along with a strengthening wind, the first breath of Storm Isha. A monstrous first-winter Great Black-backed Gull came in early; we recognised 'The Beast' from yesterday's roost. The gulls were spread out in a vast arc, with hundreds feeding on the exposed ings, presumably finding lots of worms and other invertebrates to eat. Yesterday's Caspian Gull arrived at 4pm and showed well in front of the hide and we picked out single first-winter and adult Mediterranean Gulls and an adult Lesser Black-backed. We estimated about 5000 Common Gulls, 12000 Black-headed Gulls, 400+ Herring Gulls and ten Great Black-backs. Four Goosanders arrived to roost too. 

Monday 8 January 2024

Solo Effort

Having walked a long way today in the forest, I was feeling pretty tired and went to bed lacking in enthusiasm for the following morning's Yorkshire Bird Race. I read a little of Oddie and Tomlinson's classic 'The Big Bird Race' and this did the trick; I set my alarm for an early start and went to sleep planning my route and dreaming of the fantastic birds I was going to see tomorrow. 

For a while now, the Mike Clegg Memorial Bird Race has been non-motorised, so this means logistics have to be planned carefully and a route is dictated by one's fitness and how many miles you can squeeze in before the light fails. This year would be a solo effort, with previous team mates either being away from York or planning alternative routes. Bird-racing is usually a team event, but I do enjoy a bit of solo birding as it means there's no distracting chat and I can please myself with where and when to go. The downside is that you have only one pair of eyes and ears - a big disadvantage - and there is nobody to give you an encouraging nudge when you are starting to flag. 

My day began at North Duffield Carrs, overlooking the watery world of deep flooding in the Lower Derwent Valley, as the first rays of light crept across the waterscape. A huge throng of gulls was milling about noisily, with birds heading off in all directions for their day's feeding. I quickly scanned through trying to make out species in the half-light before they all departed. I thought to myself that the only way of identifying anything unusual in the gloom would be if it was at the very front of the flock. Moments later, to my astonishment, there at the front of the flock was a small gull with gleaming white primaries and a dark bandit mask- an adult Med Gull! 


Bonus. This was presumably the same bird I'd seen a few days ago, but was more than a little luck to find this here at the start of the race. After notching up most of the regular species from the hide, including a pair of hunting Peregrines, Marsh Harrier and Little Grebes, I decided to have a walk towards the Garganey Hide to see what farmland birds I could find. I didn't find many farmland birds, but on the way back I was treated first to the fantastic spectacle of Pink-footed Geese emerging from the dawn sky and heading west filling the air with their lovely cries, and then moments later, I was astonished for the second time when a ringtail Hen Harrier cruised low across the field in front of me. She went across the road and into the distance. What a fab start!


I peddled off down to Bubwith Bridge, with the hope of seeing the Pochard flock on the ings: they were present and correct; and to look for waders on the riverbank: Curlew, Ruff and 20 Redshank also gave themselves up. 

 Nearby a fine Stonechat posed nicely in what was left of the car park that hadn't been flooded.

As I cycled back towards North Duffield a sharp call from a roadside reedswamp revealed an unexpected Cetti's Warbler. With deep flooding the only Cetti's I was aware of were on the other side of the valley and out of reach of me and my bike, so this was a really nice addition. Next up, I headed to Skipwith Common, notching up a notable flock of 60 Corn Buntings feeding in a stubble field and sitting on the overhead wires.

My luck held and following up a calling Green Woodpecker, another ringtail Hen Harrier flew past me and began quartering the heath in front of me. She was gorgeous and seemed unperturbed by my presence. She drifted off towards another part of the common. Shortly after, I had my most frustrating moment of the day, when a small raptor shot low across the heath. I got my bins on it just before it disappeared behind some trees and I was sure it was a Merlin, but I just couldn't be sure with such a brief glimpse so had to let it go. After stomping around the wet heath for a while, I had only one Snipe to show for my efforts so decided to leave the common. I paused near the entrance where I'd seen Treecreepers previously, one of the few woodland birds that had so far eluded me. No sign today, maybe too many visitors. I decided to go for a pee. Midway through, I realised the car next to the tree I was peeing against wasn't as empty as I'd assumed and the old lady inside gave me a rather surprised look! I shuffled awkwardly around the tree a bit.

Pressing on, I left the common and headed further up the valley, notching up a surprise roadside Marsh Tit near Danes Hills and even more remarkably, a Grey Wagtail in a field just south of Thorganby. The Thorganby platform was next and several birders were present, twitching the wintering drake Smew. It was great to bump into Craig Storton, who I had enjoyed the Biggin Red-footed Falcon with a couple of years ago, and to meet Dave Aitken from Bempton RSPB. Until moments earlier one of the resident Little Owls had been perched out in the open, but annoyingly it had decided to go back to its roost. I gave the site a good 45 minutes and it didn't reappear while I was there. The Smew was much better behaved and showed very well in the usual area, before retiring to the shelter of some branches poking out of the flood, where he masqueraded as a plastic bag caught in the tree! 

Up the road I wearily rode, to my final destination: Wheldrake. Or so I thought! News of some Bramblings up by Cheesecake Farm lured me further up the road where I bumped into Duncan Bye and Tim Burkenshaw who had decided to do the bird race on foot. They had just left about 50 Bramblings by the farm, so I peddaled up the lane to have a look. A Kestrel was sitting by the farm and there were few small birds; presumably the little falcon had flushed them all. Fortunately, a few minutes later and a few finches pitched into the top of a nearby tree and at least two of them were Bramblings, to my relief. My list was growing steadily, but I was running out of daylight and still needed several relatively easy birds. I decided my best bet was to don my waders and head through the floodwater to begin my vigil on Wheldrake bridge. There was a bunch of stuff I could see from there, so that seemed like the best plan. My first problem was that it seemed somebody had stolen my waders that I had stashed earlier that morning. After checking with Craig Ralston and Duncan that they hadn't moved them, I had a mini panic until I realised they were hidden behind a different log pile. Phew! Duncan then told me I'd cycled past two Tree Sparrows with the House Sparrow flock by the village. Doh! I didn't have the energy to go back. Things were falling apart! 

I headed down the lane, donned by waders and launched myself into the floods. Duncan and Tim arrived after a few minutes, and we began to watch the deeply-flooded ings. It was so frustrating we couldn't even get to Tower Hide! The Scaup that had been seen earlier had gone, and the gull roost seemed to be assembling on Swantail again- miles away! To warm ourselves up, we waded to the first corner along the very wet riverside path. This was a good plan as I added my only Treecreeper of the day! Back at the bridge, Tim spotted a Willow Tit in the willows (where else?!), which was another good bird and another tick. Sadly, apart from a Mole which emerged from the soil and then swam out into the flood water, we failed to find much else and my list ground to a halt. The only other bird I added was a Tawny Owl that called as we made out way back up the track in the dusk gloom. The bird race was at an end.

It had been a good day, with some fantastic birds and a decent amount of luck. With a bit more planning and a lot more energy I could have easily got four or five more birds (I think I say this every year!). I had cycled further than I'd planned, about 15 miles and walked a few more. My final score was 87 bird species, one up on last year, and included some difficult bird race species, like Grey Wagtail and three, yes, three, Sparrowhawks. Green Woodpecker, Hen Harrier, Smew and Cetti's Warbler are not guaranteed and were therefore notable, but the Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow, Skylark, Little Owl, Grey Partridge, Coot and Canada Goose should have been easy, but I failed to see them. But that is birdracing I guess! The Young Upstarts who always win the York area race (and usually win the whole Yorkshire title too) did fantastically well, finishing on 99 species. 

But the whole point of this is conservation and this year, money raised is going towards helping breeding waders at Edderthorpe Flash, near Barnsley. If you've enjoyed reading this, please make a small donation to this excellent cause. If you haven't enjoyed it, then make a big donation! Here's the link:  Thank you!


That swimming Mole...


New Year Goshawks

I spent most of the day wandering the forest trails and scanning the ridges, with Lunar for company. The weather was far from ideal, with heavy showers rolling in from the coast and periods of low cloud obscuring my view; I had to shelter under a large fir at one point, to avoid a drenching. A few Crossbills were flying around chipping loudly, but otherwise the forest trails were pretty quiet, with very few Siskins and other small birds around. Arriving in an open area I noticed a Brambling sitting with a handful of Chaffinches in the top of a tree. Switching to my scope, I then noticed the next few trees were full of Bramblings! I counted about 100 birds in all, with a few Chaffinches and Yellowhammers mixed in. 

With a sunny spell mid-morning, my hopes of a Goshawk making an appearance rose, and sure enough, a young male, clad in buff and black streaks powered out of the very same fir copse I'd sheltered in minutes earlier, and headed across the ridge and up the valley. He turned over a distant larch plantation, where he may have been born last year, and began to display, flying on stiff-wings, undertail puffed-out. I was hoping for an adult to erupt out of the forest and see him off, but he didn't provoke any interest. His efforts ignored, he faded into the distance.

With the sun illuminating the far side of the valley, I scanned with my scope, looking for a perched Gos. My gaze alighted on a pale shape that had me perplexed momentarily, before I realised it was a Jay, one of a pair leaping around in a larch tree. I then realised that at the top of the same tree sat an adult female Gos, enjoying the sunshine. She was a long way off, but I could imagine the noise the Jays were making, mobbing their nemesis. She ignored them but when she craned her neck to peer down at them, they took fright and flew off quickly into the cover of the woods. I decided to head back to the car so I could drive round there, but as it turned out, she soon left her perch and melted away.


As I approached the car, a Goshawk came flying towards me - an adult male this time. He headed across the valley in front of me. I didn't have my camera, so once he got level with me I managed a bit of phonescoped video of him flying past. He flapped steadily away, behind the nearest trees and I lost sight of him. 


After this flurry of activity, I decided to head to another part of the forest,  to see if there was any action. The weather had closed-in again with low cloud and a bit of drizzle in the air, so I didn't hold out much hope. Approaching the first open area with a view over the nearby valley, I was quite surprised to see the unmistakeable shape of a Goshawk heading across the valley, with great purpose. He flushed a group of about 30 Crossbills as he entered a stand of firs, which scattered across the top of the plantation. He vanished into the dark trees. A little later, I flushed another Gos from the edge of the forest as I emerged from a dark, dripping path into the weak winter daylight. I suspect she had been sitting out of the rain, watching the open land for potential prey and was quite surprised by my sudden appearance. It was a close view, but very brief and the last of my sightings for the day. I mooched about for a while longer until I could sense Lunar was getting weary, so we traipsed back along the trail in the gathering gloom.

Friday 5 January 2024

Cracked Ice

More luck today with the drake Smew at Thorganby, which performed beautifully to the north of the platform. 


It spent ages preening and then to our surprise, clambered out on to the grassy bank and joined the Wigeon. Feather-care continued; it takes effort keeping the cracked ice appearance of his dapper plumage looking that good.


Also, present, three Coot (pretty scarce in the LDV in winter), 500ish Dunlins and 30+ Whooper Swans to the south. No sign of any Scaup at North Duffield, but I bagged two drakes at Wheldrake Ings in the afternoon, after a very deep wade through the floods to the bridge. The gull roost was out on Swantail so too distant to do anything with. A Willow Tit was calling nearby, and a couple of Goldeneye were notes, along with a single female Pochard.

A very flooded Wheldrake Ings, with two sleepy Scaup in the distance (about 900m away from where I took the pic)

Smew bathing

New Year Mediterranean

Happy New Year everyone!

A look round the LDV under azure skies was a great way to start the year and to blow away the remnants of last night's hangover. I couldn't find the drake Smew or any Scaup, but it was great to see all the regular birds in the valley, lit by the low winter sunshine. The highlight was an adult Mediterranean Gull that dropped in with 200+ Black-headed Gulls at North Duffield Carrs mid-morning. It headed off west after 20 minutes. 

View north up the LDV from North Duffield Carrs; Bottom: Med Gull in the centre at the back. Keeping up my usual poor photography standards!