Tuesday 14 May 2024

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!

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