Sunday 28 April 2024

Arctic Terns: Ultra Migrants!

Monday dawned drizzly, with low cloud and a light southeasterly wind. It looked like a good day for birding, with this kind of weather conducive for dumping overland-migrating birds at inland locations. I was stuck in the office all day, and when the messages started pinging through of flocks of Arctic Terns dropping in across the York area, I couldn't help but feeling quite gripped! Sandwich Terns, Common Scoters, Grey Plovers and a Little Gull added to my torment, but I enjoyed the collective excitement, albeit vicariously. With a brief break for lunch, I grabbed my bins and cycled down to Dringhouses Pond. This could easily pull in a wayward group of terns; in fact, I saw two storm-blown juveniles here in late October last year, but sadly nothing was doing besides a few bored-looking Tufted Ducks and the resident pair of Great Crested Grebes.

The ace up my sleeve was that I'd arranged to go birding straight from work, so when 5pm came, I cycled furiously home, hoping that the continuing cool, overcast conditions were still favourable for some movement to be happening. 

And so it proved. I arrived into an empty hide at North Duffield Carrs and immediately spotted the elegant white forms of Arctic Terns dipping and swerving across the flood water. Excellent! An image I had day-dreamed of for hours was now here to be savoured. Seventeen birds in all, a good count for York, but surpassed by larger counts earlier in the day. Five Common Scoters flew past by field of view, three adult males, a female and a first-summer male, before landing on the flood; a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits wickered as they fed along the bund in front of the hide, together with a black-bellied Dunlin. This was fabulous April birding! The Black-tails constant calling attracted other birds in and the count rose to 130 before many headed north up the valley. 

Top: Arctic Terrns, pausing for a rest; bottom: Common Scoters and Arctic Terns

The Arctic Terns were spell-binding, elegant, angular birds, gracefully picking insects from the water surface, using their deeply-forked tails to turn sharply and dip down to the flood. It was hard not to be mesmerised by them and to keep vigilant for another species making an appearance.

The count of Arctic Terns rose to 40 as more birds arrived from the southwest, magically materialising out of the low cloud and joining the feeding throng. Over the next two hours, I counted the birds every ten minutes and I estimated a minimum of 57 birds had passed through, but the maximum could have been three times that. At 8pm, a flock of 14 peeled off from the rest, and I watched as they flocked together and then headed at a sharp angle straight up into the low cloud to the east and out of sight, to embark on the next leg of their epic journey north. The six remaining birds, resting on posts, followed suit a few minutes later, rocketing skywards, calling excitedly. Presumably above the clouds they could navigate to the coast more easily. 


Catching a big movement of Arctic Terns inland relies on a number of things lining up, not least the weather and time of year. Also, as far as York is concerned, we need late flooding (as we have this year),  to pull birds in for a rest. Usually by now, the floodplain meadows are more meadow and less flood, and with little habitat, terns pass through undetected. On Monday 22nd April, all these things aligned, and I was priveleged to witness the tale-end of this spectacular wildlife phenomenon.  In the York area, there were at least 240 birds logged at North Duffield during the day, with a further 70 at Castle Howard, and small numbers at Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings, which may have then passed through NDC later on. 

Monday 15 April 2024

Magic Field

There's a ploughed field north of Naburn that is attracting a lot of birds currently, including good numbers of wagtails, Skylarks and Corn Buntings. I am not sure why - it looks like an average ploughed field to me. Anyway, on Saturday afternoon, I cycled down the track to have a look in the strong southerly wind. 

The birds were difficult to watch as they were mainly trying to evade the gale, hiding behind clods of earth and down in the ruts. At least three dapper White Wagtails were zipping about among about ten Pieds, but stars of the show were the dazzling sunshine bright Yellow Wagtails glowing brightly against the soil. After a bit, I picked out the Channel Wagtail, found earlier by Jane and Rob. It's pale blue head, broad white super and sub-ocular, and extensive white throat indicated mixed parentage. It was neverthless an attractive bird.

White Wagtail, with a female Pied at the top.

Male Channel Wagtail, likely flava x flavissima

Male British Yellow Wagtail

Juxtaposition...a tale of two Grebes

It is April, a magical month for the birder. I try and get out birding as often as possible, as with migration in full swing, every day brings fresh arrivals, tiny miracles returning thousands of miles from the tropical heat of Africa to spend the summer with us. Our winter migrants are on the move too, heading back north and east to breed and large numbers pass through our area on their travels. Throw in the chance of literally anything turning up anywhere, and it is a very exciting month!

After work on Thursday I headed out to the LDV to see what was occurring. With the valley flooding again for the umpteenth time this winter/spring, Wheldrake was inaccessible, so I headed to the south end to start my birding at North Duffield. The pair of Scaup and pair of hybrid Scaup-alikes were still present, but the large expanse of water hadn't pulled in the hoped-for terns or Little Gulls. Next, round to the east side of the valley, to check sites on the way up north. My first stop was positive, with a female Common Scoter a fresh arrival, looking rather out of place amid the scores of Wigeon and Pintail. No sign of any Garganey yet though. Swallows zipped overhead and Willow Warblers had joined the Chiffchaffs in the scrub around the church. A late Fieldfare chacked over, heading east. This juxtaposition of incoming summer migrants with outgoing winter migrants is what makes April so special.

Ellerton was teeming with ducks, but nothing scarce, so I headed on up to East Cottingwith, where I could look across the Pocklington Canal on to the refuge at the south end of Wheldrake. Almost the first bird I saw was a Black-necked Grebe - class! 


These birds used to breed in the valley, but have become really scarce in recent years and never hang around long, so this was a delightful treat. After a few moments, I thought I better get the news out, and as I opened Whatsapp I saw a message from Ollie Metcalfe saying he had just found a Slavonian Grebe at Bank Island! Nuts - he must have found this at exactly the same time as I'd found the Black-necked, at the other end of Wheldrake. Slavonian Grebes are next-level in terms of rarity in the York area, so my BNG was somewhat eclipsed. 


Having taking a few rushed pics and video of the grebe and a smart breeding-plumaged Great Egret, I picked up my sister in Sutton and then shot round to Bank Island.  We discovered a grinning Ollie and Craig watching the stonking summer-plumaged Slav feeding out on the flood. What a fantastic grebe double, something not witnessed before in the York area, and continuing our great start to the York birding year. 

The following morning, another bizarre twist in this tale. The early morning news was that the Slav had departed, but the Black-necked Grebe was now on Bank Island! Then, an hour or so later, the almost unbelievable news that the Slav was now on the refuge, exactly where I'd found the Black-necked the previous evening. So, the two grebes had effectively switched position during the night! Totally nuts. 

 Following this strange episode, the Slav had disappeared from the refuge by Saturday morning, only for me to refind it on the main flood out from Tower Hide later that morning. Whilst watching the bird there, an adult Kittiwake dropped in right in front of it - another scarce York bird and proving April really is a phenomenal birding month!

Sunday 7 April 2024


Yesterday was my last Yorkshire Coast Nature Goshawk Tour of spring 2024. I am relieved that it was a successful day, with seven Goshawks seen, bringing my hit rate to 100 percent. The Gos have performed brilliantly this year, and it is great to see them thriving in the Yorkshire Forest. Long may it continue! We  have watched as pairs defended their territories against last year's young, neighbouring pairs and other rivals, including the local Buzzards. The sight of a slow-flapping female Gos, with her white undertail puffed out, and her long, graduated tail held tightly shut, over the remote forest, is an amazing thing, and I hope these sightings will live long in the memories of all our fabulous clients. Roll on next year!

I am delighted that YCN will be making a donation to the RSPB Investigations team, who do a fantastic job looking after these and other raptors.

Besides the Goshawks, there was a lot of other bird activity in the forest. An early Tree Pipit was a highlight, displaying maniacally: repeatedly climbing up into the sky before parachuting into the top of a tree; a Raven, which gave us a cracking fly-past, and a couple of Swallows back round their home farm. The spring flowers - Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Wood Anemones, Wood Sorrel and Primroses - lit up the woodland floor, and a bit of warm spring sunshine felt good on our faces after such a long wet winter. 


Today, I headed off to North Duffield Carrs to see if the strong southerly wind had blown anything in. It  was clear that more migrants had come in with the warm weather and wind, with several Swallows and a good numbers of Sand Martins. A Ringed Plover flew south, and there were five Ruff, a Dunlin and a Black-tailed Godwith sheltering from the brisk wind. The male and female Scaup were still hanging out with the flotilla of Tufties and Pochard, and the two drake hybrids were still at large, one of which still shadows the drake Scaup.


At 10.30 a flight of 40 Wigeon came in from the east; I joked to Jilly who was in the hide that we should check carefully in case the American Wigeon was with them. To my surprise and delight, it was, and it proceeded to swim towards Garganey Hide, where it showed beautifully in the morning sun although most of the time it was asleep, as per usual! The bird had been at Wheldrake until the end of last week and then had disappeared. I assumed it had departed for northern climes, but it seemed it had just returned to its original patch now that the Derwent has flooded yet again. A very smart bird and great to admire it at much closer quarters. After a couple of hours, I left it to its slumber and headed home.

 The drake American Wigeon with his partner


Later on, a dog walk up the York-Selby cycle track revealed four dazzling Yellow Wagtails feeding with a similar number of Pied Wags in a freshly ploughed field near the Moor Lane bridge at Naburn. Cracking!

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Long View

With the day off, I left the kids to entertain themselves and headed off to Wheldrake Ings. A Cetti's Warbler was singing from the marshy area next to the car park, and another was by the first bend in the riverside path. It seems they are returning to the ings after the winter floods. The Willow Warbler was still proclaiming its territory near Tower Hide and a second bird was in riverside trees just south of the refuge gate. The American Wigeon was showing well, staying close to a female Euro Wigeon on Swantail. The light was still dreary, so my pic are not much better than the other day.

The Blackwits were spread across the site, with the bulk of the flock at the back of the refuge, but about 100 on Swantail and a few flocks around the edges of the refuge, feeding. 


I moved on to North Duffield and within a few minutes, picked up a couple of elegant Avocets, feeding way out at the back of the flood. These are my first Avocets in the York area for about five years, so I was more than a little pleased to find them. Avocets are remarkably scarce in the York area despite the increasing population in Yorkshire. They also seem to move on quickly, and true to form, these two departed at some point in the afternoon, disappointing some post-work twitchers. The drake Scaup and its hybrid buddy were still present with the large flock of Tufties, 45 Pinkfeet were flying about and the immature drake Goosander dropped in to bathe and preen, before heading off north up the valley. With southerly winds and warm weather approaching, perhaps more migrants will arrive by the weekend. Fingers crossed!

The Avocets were about a kilometre north of the hide on the back edge of the flood, underneath the old Osprey platform.

Zeiss Victory SF 10x42 - initial thoughts

If you read the tale of my binocular disaster, you may be interested to hear that a silver lining to that dark cloud rapidly came into focus. Our insurance paid out (thanks Axa) and with a bit of extra cash, I secured myself a pair of the new Zeiss Victory SFs, from Viking Optical

I was very happy with my Zeiss FLs, so I was keen to get my hands on the new SFs, having heard good things about them. Viking Optical provided excellent service, and, with next-day delivery, I was out birding with the SFs less than a week after obliterating my FLs! Not bad at all. 

So, what is my early opinion? Well, optically they are excellent: crisp, bright and with gorgeous colour rendition, resulting in a smile on my face each time I see a bird through them; I am a very happy birder! The general build quality is fantastic, as you would expect from Zeiss, with excellent, smooth focussing, a solid diopter arrangement and a straightforward strap attachment situation, unlike the fiddly wierdness of Swarovski. They arrived with a rather futuristic case, which I probably won't use - I'm not cool enough. They do fit into the old case from my FLs, so I will use that for now. I also rescued my old rainguard from my FLs, as although the SFs are supplied with one, I prefer the one-piece type, as I find they flick on and off more easily. The bins also came with objective lens covers, but they never left the box.

When I got them out of the box, the SFs seem really quite big, with long barrels. However, the open design, similar to the Swaro ELs reduces the weight considerably and the attention to balance means that they do not feel cumbersome or heavy whilst in use. My old FLs weighed in at 765g and my new SFs are 790g, an increase of only 3% or so, so barely noticeable. For those who don't like bins at the heavier end, consider getting a harness-type strap, or go for the 10 x 32s (590g) or perhaps the 10 x 40 SFLs which are 640g. The open bridge design looks a bit odd at first - I was never a massive fan of the appearance of the ELs - but they are actually very comfortable to use. I can hold the SFs with one hand, three fingers round the barrel and my index finger on the focus wheel, in a much more secure way than I could hold my FLs. As I spend a fair bit of time guiding on boats, this will be a real advantage, especially when the swell gets up! The focus is super smooth, with moderate resistance, giving it a lovely action and allowing precision use.

In terms of optics, I have not looked through a more fantastic pair of bins! The initial impression has a clear wow-factor and is an unexpected step up from my trusty FLs. The brightness, incredible field of view and sharpness of focus is just awesome. The depth of field seems impressive, so it is easy to focus the bins with very little rotation of the focussing wheel. This is really helpful when locking on to flying birds, or skulking birds deep in cover, where every split second counts, allowing me to focus in and identify the bird before it disappears. I spent ages just watching freshy arrived Sand Martins scudding around over Castle Howard lake the other day; it was such a joy to get such good views of them through the SFs and stay locked-in focus the whole time without any effort.

I haven't yet used the SFs in low-light, so I can't comment on their performance in those conditions, but the impression I get from how well they perform in murky, overcast weather, is that they will be fantastic. 

Another feature of these bins is the exceptional close focus. I can pretty much focus on my toes, which will give me a great ability to check out plants, insects and other nearby wildlife without having to step away. I chose my FLs partly for their close-focus ability, which seemed better than the equivalent Leica and Swarovski, and the SFs are even better, which is really pleasing. I am sure the 8s are even better! 

And now for the negatives...

One downside of these SFs, which has been reported by birding mates and also online, are the flimsy eyecups. As seems standard, the eyecups twist up or down and click into a number of positions, to give the birder their preferred eye-relief. I like to have mine at the first click up from the bottom. Within two uses, they barely register the clicks to allow them to be partially dropped and everytime I take the rainguard off, they move. Very frustrating! It is very peculiar that Zeiss have cocked-up their top level bins in this way. Everything else is excellent, but the eyecups are like something off a pair of budget-end bins -or worse! I had been warned about this, but was - perhaps too optimistically - hoping that Zeiss had sorted this out and new pairs were being supplied with improved eyecups. Apparently not!

With a bit of Googling, I found a message on Zeiss's website recognising the problem with the SF eyecups and after an email exchange, I am being sent a replacement pair of apparently more robust eyecups, from their UK repair contractor, the very helpful East Coast Binoculars. I will update how that goes once I receive and replace them - hopefully in the near future!

So, apart from the eyecup situation, I am very happy with my new bins and I suspect these will last me a very long time (providing I don't leave them on my car roof!.


(By the way, I am entirely independent of Zeiss, so this is my genuine opinion. I have a Swaro scope, Manfrotto tripod and previously had Zeiss FL bins, so I am not solely limited to Zeiss. Of course if any of these companies want to give me free gear to trial and review, just drop me a line!).


Hard Slog

With some promise in the forecast (northeasterly with showers), a visit to Castle Howard, followed by a loop of the LDV was in order. It still felt very wintery and apart from 40 Sand Martins over CHL, lots of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, there were no new summer migrants, until I got to Wheldrake where a singing Willow Warbler shivered in the late morning breeze. It has been very wet and cool in the Med recently and I suspect following the last pulse of migrants, everything has been blocked. With skies clearing in the Med this coming week and the wind going southerly, I suspect we will get more birds arriving. The heavy rain has been pretty catastrophic in southern Europe, downing loads of Alpine Swifts, which are struggling in the prolonged poor weather. With an increasingly unstable climate, perhaps this is going to be the norm?

Castle Howard was rather bereft of birds, with many of the ducks having departed. A Cetti's Warbler was singing in the usual area and a few Marsh Tits bounced about in the hedgerow to the north of the lake. A couple of Goldeneye were still present but it seemed that the Smew had gone.

Into the valley and there were lots of ducks around still, plus two Whooper Swans at North Duff. Despite the chilly weather, Curlews, Redshanks, Lapwings and Skylarks were busy displaying over the rapidly-drying ings - a fantastic sound. 

The drake American Wigeon was refound mid-morning, at Wheldrake Ings, by Stuart Rapson, and as that was my final destination, I had chance to have a closer look at this handsome bird, casually swimming about on Swantail. The cloud of Blackwits was still present too, appearing like a smudge of rust on the main meadow, which is rapidly 'greening up' now that the flooding has abated. A first-winter White-fronted Goose had recently appeared and is hanging out with the local Greylags. Today, it was on the grass in front of Thicket Priory. 

Drake American Wigeon, top two; White-fronted Goose, bottom.

So, not a bad morning, but as often happens in early April, a little bit frustrating!