Saturday 25 May 2024

York's first Great Reed Warbler

We have been talking a lot about Great Reed Warblers during the last few springs and the hope that one might finally grace the York area. A record seemed to be on the cards, but so far we had been disappointed. One-day birds at Staveley and to the south at Idle Valley a couple of weeks ago, hinted that this year we might get lucky, but without extensive reedbeds in the area, perhaps there just isn't enough habitat to attract a passing migrant.

After some really early starts this week, I needed a lie-in on Saturday (well, until 7.15am!) before heading out birding. Turning my phone on, it bleeped repeatedly as 17 messages in a Whatsapp group flashed through - this must be some big bird news from York! Sure enough, the day had come - Adam Firth had found a Great Reed Warbler! The bird was singing in willows by the River Derwent between Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings bridge. Panic!

I grabbed my gear, apologised to the dog and promised Vicky I'd be back in an hour (we were due to head south for my mother-in-law's 80th birthday mid-morning). Arriving in quick time, I scampered down the path from the car park in the beautiful early morning sunshine. Within moments, the loud grating 'trak trak trak' reached my ears - it was still here! I met Chris Gomersall, Duncan Bye and Adam, and together we listening to the monster acro singing from the nearby trees. Frustratingly, we couldn't get a view, but after a while, it flew further up the river towards Bank Island. Still out of view, it sang again before flying further. Perhaps it was heading for the small reedbed on Bank Island? Adam and Duncan left and Chris and me went round to the hide. Sure enough, our hunch was right and the bird's grating song could be heard from the reeds. Moments later, Chris announced he could see it and training my scope on it, we both got fantastic views as it sat on top of the reeds in the morning sun. After a couple of pics, I took a short video before it dropped into the reeds at about 8am. It stopped singing and I needed to head off, so left Chris to it. An expected York first, but still a fantastic surprise first thing on the Bank Holiday weekend! Well done, Adam!

The bird went quiet hereafter and briefly sang unseen in riverside willows early afternoon and then again in the evening, but had gone the next day.

Friday 24 May 2024

Death Shrike

It has been a pretty incredible week for drift migrants on the east coast, with incredible numbers of Red-backed Shrikes, including over 30 on Fair Isle and ten at Flamborough Head, dumped by heavy rain and an easterly airflow. Mix in a scattering of Icterine and Marsh Warblers, Bluethroats and Common Rosefinches, and the east coast has had a distinctly southern Scandinavian feel. I have had a fab week at work, but have been pining for the coast and this fall of eastern gems.  

Yesterday, ahead of taking the YWT board on a site visit, I popped into one of our woodland nature reserves to see a Wood Warbler that has been holding territory for a while. I heard the bird as soon as I jumped out of the car and soon was treated to a spectacular show as this exquisite phyllosc, parachuted and shivered around me, delivering its two quite different songs with impressive volume. 


It seemed to favour low, bare branches of the Beech trees, and if I sat quietly against a tree-trunk, it would sing within ten feet of me. Absolutely brilliant. I didn't have a camera, but recorded the best bit - it's song, on my phone. Nearby, it was nice to see some Bird's-nest Orchids flowering on the usual slope, beneath the Beeches. 

Wood Warbler on passage in Cyprus, April 2023.


Today, I was up before the lark and headed east to check for any remnants of the coastal fall, at Flamborough Head.  The Old Fall Loop was fruitless, until I got to the Lighthouse Grasslands where yesterday's Icterine Warbler was knocking out a squeaky toy-laced chattering song from the Motorway willows. Ickys are great birds; the pale-lemon face and throat is not really reminiscent of anything else, though with this one's white belly, it did remind me a bit of yesterday's Wood Warbler's underparts. The long bill and bright orange mouth were most obvious as the bird burbled and tinkled from the edge of the hedge, offering great views. This individual sported a really well-marked pale wing panel, khaki upperparts, a typically beady eye and steely grey legs. My fellow YCN guide Mark Pearson arrived with a small tour group and we together enjoyed great views as the bird continued to perform beautifully.


Around the corner, a lingering male Red-backed Shrike preened from a bank of brambles in the Gorse Field. I was delighted to see this bird and witness part of the memorable fall of this smart species. After watching it for several minutes, I headed back round to the car, with a rather Scandinavian-looking Willow Warbler in the Golf Course Willows, the only other notable migrant. 


I decided to check Holmes Gut and after jumping the gate, a Spotted Flycatcher zipped up on to the hedge-top - a good start! After a chat with Dave Woodmansey, I ambled through the long grass, carefully checking the hedgerow and willows. Not a lot stirred, though some Swifts were feeding low-down over the bushes, giving awesome views. I stood a while to drink in my favourite birds, as they pelted past, mouths agape. Nothing was doing and time was running out. Work beckoned so I headed back to the car. The Spot Fly was looking rather agitated on top of the hedge near the Yorkshire Water compound. Nearby, I could see another bird on the barbed wire fence that encircles the compound. Lifting my bins, a female Red-backed Shrike snapped into focus! Fantastic! Not as smart as the earlier male, but a self-find always feels more rewarding. She sat motionless, surveying the scene, showing beautifully. If only I had my DSLR! I snapped a quick record shot with my phone and moments later she dropped down into the compound then flew up into the low branches of the Sycamore. This set off chaos among previously-unseen small birds who clearly were not happy to share their bit of cover with a predator and I saw Garden Warbler and Blackcap, along with the Spot Fly, mobbing the shrike. I got a glimpse of what was probably a female Pied Flycatcher but it moved into cover before I could nail it. 

Red-backed Shrike on the fence. Honest!

The shrike decided it was time to move on, and dropped into the back of the hedge and out of sight. Having been lucky enough to find a good bird right at the death, it was time to depart for work.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Garganey Party

Last Wednesday I headed out to North Duffield Carrs after tea to see if there was any passage waders. One Tundra Ringed Plover was the only one present, but the evening was stolen by a veritable Garganey party, with several males cavorting around, calling and displaying in front of, yes, Garganey Hide! Such class little ducks and their rattling call could be clearly heard as they flew and swam around looking for females.

And some video...

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Turnstone - Osprey Combo

A pretty fab half hour at North Duffield Carrs yielded a flock of waders, which through the scope proved to be ten Ringed Plovers and two Turnstones heading north up the valley. As if that wasn't good enough, twenty five minutes later, my sky-scanning revealed a big raptor, an Osprey! It has been a great spring for Ospreys in the LDV and I was delighted to finally catch up with one. It circled briefly over Aughton floods before continuing upriver. 


These sightings spurred me on to check more sites, but a message about a Nightingale at Flamborough - a much sought-after Yorkshire bird - got me heading coastwards. Unfortunately, the skulking chat was skulking a little too deeply in the brambles and had also fallen silent, so after an hour, I admitted defeat and went to look at the first-summer male Siberian Stonechat, which was bouncing around in the Gorse Field. After watching that for a bit, I did the Old Fall loop, which was relatively quiet, though a Whimbrel and a dapper male Pied Flycatcher were very welcome. 

Siberian Stonechat. Post script - 24th May, DNA analysis of this bird has proven it is Siberian Stonechat, Saxicola maurus. 

Pied Flycatcher

Always Look Up!

Well, Friday 10th May was a bit mad! After the highs of Carrifran and Golden Eagles, the week seemed to be ending on a low slide, though warm weather and the promise of Swifts and some easterly migratory drift raised my hopes for the weekend. 

Part One - Enter the barn-door

I left work a little early and nipped down to North Duffield. There had been two immaculate White-winged Black Terns at North Cave Wetlands all day, but I fancied the lure of the LDV and a tailwind to assist, would prove too much and I over-optimistically daydreamed of seeing these eastern pied wonders flitting over the verdant flooded meadows....

This wasn't to be, and after a brief chat with NDC legend Alan Whitehead and a mutually-enjoyed Great Egret, it was me who would head east, as opposed to the two terns heading west. A bit later, I was enjoying great views of this pair of marsh terns, firstly loafing, long-legged on a shingle island, before heading over to Crosslands Lake to feed on insects emerging from the water below. I bumped into the Considerate Birders, who I had followed for ages on Twitter/X but never actually met. We chatted birds, birders and the birding life whilst watching these dashing terns flickering across the water. A nice way to end a fab week... 


Most birders had drifted off, as teatime had arrived, leaving the three of us and another guy to enjoy the terns at our leisure. Something disturbed the gulls and I thought I heard one of the local Med Gulls calling. I casually mentioned that perhaps a raptor had flushed the gull colony, as there seemed to be a lot of angry birds in the air. The other guy said that there was indeed a raptor among the erupting gulls. I lifted my bins, and saw a jaw-dropping behemoth, a flipping sea-eagle, crusing round over the lake! 

I yelled 'it's a White-tailed Eagle!' perhaps a little too loudly, and pandemonium broke out. Cameras clicked, Abi ran off down the road to stop one of the local birders from driving off unaware of the absolute scene occurring behind him; I got a hasty video clip then followed Abi and yelled 'Sea-eagle!' at the top of my lungs to alert any birders in the vicinity, before calling Birdguides to put the news out. Birders came running from all over, and a handful caught sight of this majesterial barn-door casually circling overhead, oblivious to the berserk mob of gulls, terns and Shelducks (!) harrassing it. Breathless birders came running, desperately asking where it was. We just pointed upwards! After a couple of minutes, the young eagle glided north, losing height and appearing to be aiming to land. 


The crowd was now a mix of birders beaming like buffoons, totally shocked at what had just happened out of nowhere, and disappointed folk who had arrived moments too late. There were some who weren't even aware of what they'd just missed, and were perplexed why nobody was looking at the two White-winged Black Terns that were nonchalantly flying up and down in front of us all, as if nothing had happened! 

After getting myself back together, I decided to head home for tea. I drove the road just north of the site in order to check the fields for a loafing eagle. I bumped into a birder scoping a field - perhaps he was watching the eagle. He wasn't; he hadn''t even heard about what had just happened down the road. Farmers went about their business; a Whimbrel flew past calling, which was nice, but there was no sign of the behemoth. Perhaps it had carried on north after all. I drove home feeling exhillarated. Birding is sometimes like that! 

 Post-script:  Tim Mackrill from the Roy Dennis Foundation confirmed this bird's identity via Twitter:

"Hi Jono, yes that was G544, a female translocated to the Isle of Wight last year from Lewis. She has since travelled further north into southern Scotland."

Part Two - Something in the sky

It was nearly time to go and pick my son, Sol, up from Air Cadets, when I got an alert on my phone: The Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, was currently going off due to a massive solar storm. It should be visible just about anywhere in Britain. Wow! Unfortunately, being about 8pm, it was still light. Drat! 

I have had a turbulent and mostly disappointing relationship with this celestial phenomenon. I first saw it over the Great Glen on New Year's Eve, back in 2016, when green columns lit up the snowy Scottish mountains. Since then, I have tried and failed countless times in Yorkshire, shooting out on cold January nights to park up away from the city lights to sit shivering and looking up at a cloudy winter's sky. Even Tromso, in north Norway let me down, with overcast conditions foiling me again, a couple of autumns ago. 

So, as I picked Sol up I wasn't particularly optimistic about the coming evening. To my surprise, Sol was quite keen to give it a try. I had decided that Strensall Common north of York would be a good, dark spot, with a wide open vista giving us a good view of the sky. It seemed to be very clear too, with little cloud to ruin our chances. My wife, Vicky, is well-accustomed to my mad dashes at random times of day, and with no work or school tomorrow, was fine with Sol going with me. We headed round the ring road and soon arrived at Strensall, to a deserted car park. Even if we didn't see the Aurora I felt we had a chance of hearing an early Nightjar or perhaps a Long-eared Owl. Anyway, I was still buzzing from the earlier eagle-incident, so a nightime jaunt on to the common seemed like a fun thing to do. 

Risking sheep shit and midges, we found a good position on the heath. The sky still seemed a bit too light even though it was 10pm. I was still quite hopeful; if it would just get dark! After a while, we began to notice a pale band of sky in the north. Was this cloud, or just the last dying remnants of Friday, ebbing away?  Sol took a pic with his phone, and to our surprise this showed the band of sky to be a distinctly pastel green. I wasn't totally convinced that this was something rather then nothing, but a few minutes later a kind of vertical column of green appeared in the sky. The Aurora had arrived! 

Over the next half an hour, the lights grew stronger. Shapes shifted and grew brighter, before fading, but each fade was replaced by something more impressive. The thing in the sky seemed to be growing brighter as the sky grew darker. Long shafts of pale green light now projected downwards from the sky; this was really it, the Northern Lights at last! Sol was clearly excited; I was dancing around. I managed a pic with my phone and stuck it on Twitter and a few Whatsapp groups to alert friends and followers. Soon, I started receiving pics and messages from others watching this spectacle too, as far south as the fens in Cambridgeshire.

And then, at about 11pm, something astonishing happened. An arc of light spread right overhead from the northeast horizon right over, like a giant nocturnal rainbow and it turned bright pink! We could not believe what we were seeing. Directly overhead, beams of magenta seemed to be protruding out of space down towards us. I suddenly felt very small and fragile - this was a mysterious and ominous cosmic force. We just stared upwards, mouths agape. Through the phonescreen, you could see the lights pulsate and ripple, like waves crashing on to our atmosphere. It was a truly wondrous, awe-inspiring sight and made me feel quite emotional to witness it so close to home.

Getting myself together, I realised it was getting on for midnight and I really wanted the rest of the family to see this, so we headed home. The Aurora was so bright by now that we could see it overhead through the windscreen all the way back round the ringroad to Bishopthorpe, only being masked by the brightest of streetlights. I was hoping we could see it over our house and sure enough as we piled out of the car there it was, streaking across the sky. I woke Vicky and she came out to enjoy the view, but sadly my daughter was fast asleep. 

 I headed to bed, buzzing, having witnessed a once in a lifetime event - certainly round here! Nature is amazing!

Sunday 12 May 2024

Welcome home!

It has been a long wait, but relief as one of our Swift pair has made it back and roosted in the nestbox for the first time this year! He or she roosted in the box and was fastidiously tidying up the nest first thing this morning. Hopefully the other bird will be back soon.