Monday, 30 January 2017

Owls about

My daughter and wife reported seeing a Barn Owl near the south end of Naburn Sewage Works yesterday afternoon. This was quite exciting news as it was close to where I had assisted Yorkshire Water in putting a Barn Owl Box up on an old abandoned building on their land and adjacent to the rough grassy field. I bobbed down there as the light began to fail and sure enough at 5.05pm the ghostly shape of a hunting Barn Owl floated in to view. It didn’t appear to come from the box, but it may have got out without me seeing it. The bird did a circuit of the field and I watched with my bins from the footpath. Amazingly, it flew straight towards me, coming so close that I couldn’t focus my bins. I lowered them to look and in doing so revealed my face, which startled the owl, which did a quick u turn and went back the way it came. It is always a privilege to see one of these beautiful birds and I am delighted there is one around here that might just use that box. On the walk back, a couple of Tawny Owls were hooting loudly from the large Willows by the river and the usual Grey Partridge was creaking away in the fields near Bridge Farm.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

After the Rain

The rain stopped by lunchtime so I headed out for an hour at Rufforth with the gulls. Two first winter Glaucous Gulls lumbered over the tip and nearby an advanced first winter Iceland Gull was sitting in a field. The bird had a dark eye and quite a lot of brown markings on the upper parts, so I assume I aged it correctly... Later, a Glaucous Gull was in the field just across the road from the tip which may have one of the earlier birds. Another gull looked quite interesting, with a dark eye and weedy green-yellow bill, although I decided it wasn't a Casp as the head shape just didn't look right.

Glaucous Gull with a dirty beak.

Iceland Gull with an advanced beak, like a Glauc!

On Dringhouses Pond a Great Crested Grebe was present along with 14 Coots. No sign of the former on the bird race three weeks ago.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Icelandic Monster Trio

Bit of time to kill between party drop off and pick up, so popped down to Rufforth to see if any gulls were about. There was a flock of c300 in the field across from the tip, so I parked up on the airfield and walked back. I just love birding from the road verge and getting beeped at. It's such fun. Quickly found a rather monstrous juvenile Glaucous Gull at the front of the flock and nearby a second bird showing slightly more advanced plumage. Smart. I couldn't pull anything else out and there was no turnover so to avoid freezing to death, I headed off to Poppleton to see if anything was doing there. Almost immediately found another young Glauc though this bird was quite a bit darker than the previous two. I didn't manage any photo as it was a bit distant but pleased to score the hat-trick. No sign of any Waxwings in Acomb in a quick search. The Pine Bunting continues to show sporadically down at Dunnington and is attracting the crowds.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Waxwing Winter

It has been a Waxwing Winter, with a wave in late autumn, followed by a bigger wave between Christmas and New Year. Three popped up as I walked Lunar on 7th January just round the corner from my house but soon departed. This was a hand-held phone pic. Lovely birds.


When Chris Gomersall rang me at work yesterday, I knew he must have found something good. I was assuming it would be a gull of some sort, as Chris spends a lot of time with the gulls at Rufforth. American Herring Gull was what sprang to mind, so when he told me he had had brief views of a male Pine Bunting at Dunnington, I nearly fell off my chair!

Pine Bunting, courtesy of Francesco Vernosl, Flickr Creative Commons. It looked like this!

This is still a mega rarity in the UK although it has been a superb autumn for this species in Europe with some small groups having been found wintering. Local birder Terry Weston had reported a large flock of Yellowhammers on Thursday and Chris decided to check them out. I am glad he did. He saw the bird only once and for about five seconds but was confident enough with the identification to release the news. I was stuck in work and wouldn't get chance to try for it today. Saturday is my son's football practise, #birdingdad, so following an anxious night, I had an even more anxious couple of hours before I could get to the site. My wife substituted me early, at 9.20, forty minutes earlier than I had expected, so wasting no time, I jumped in the car. As I departed, Chris rang to say they had just seen the bird - FANTASTIC! It was still present. I raced to Dunnington.

A little later I arrived, slightly surprised to see only a dozen birders on site, most of whom were familiar local faces. They were all in high spirits having just seen the bird. The field was alive with Yellowhammers, with Reed Buntings, Chaffinches, Tree Sparrows etc for company. The angle of view made things difficult as birds flicked out of the stubble - where you couldn't see them - into the hedge where most landed out of sight. After a few tense minutes, I suggested we all walk round on to the footpath, where we could view straight across the field into the hedge and trees where the buntings were perching when  not feeding.

Scoping the Pine Bunting with Chris Gomersall, the finder (right) and Tim Jones (left).

Early doors. The twitch assembles...

This proved to be a good move, and shortly I picked the bird up, sitting side on in an Ash tree. What a corker! It had a lovely rufous face, with a bright white cheek stripe. The underparts were largely orangey red. I was so stunned by this stonking bird I could barely get the words out. After ten seconds or so, it dropped back into the field. Most of the birders had got on it, although most of those present had seen it at 9.20 anyway. Minutes later and a birder called it again. It was perched up in the same tree on the top. After half a minute, it flew off with Yellowhammers and perched in the top of a large Oak in the hedge two fields away. It stayed here for a minute or so and I risked a bit of video, although I needn't have bothered as it was distant and in poor light and my hand was a bit shaky.

Birdguides photo of the week

Shortly, it flew off. Something had clearly upset the flock - a Kestrel as it turned out - and the birds flew around high up in a flock before dispersing. We spent the next two hours walking around but failed to see it again. I left at midday, heading home for #birdingdad duties, elated. This is the rarest bird to ever have been seen in the York area. Well done Chris!

More fog

Guided walk at Wheldrake Ings, hampered by ice, fog and rain. Half the folk didn't turn up, but the brave dozen followed me round the hides. The fog lifted a bit at the far end so everybody managed views of Whooper Swans down my scope. On the way back, I heard the trilling of a Waxwing and looked up to see one heading over west. Bonus. On the drive back through Wheldrake, three birds were sitting in a roadside tree as I entered the village.

Bird Racing!

Out at the crack of dawn, the Nevermind the Woodcocks team of Emanuela Buzzi, Richard Baines and Paul Brook, peered into the darkness south of the York to Selby Cycle Track. We had ticked Tawny Owl and Robin a few minutes earlier outside our house in Bishopthorpe to get us off the mark. After a few tense minutes in which we noted the calls of Golden Plover and Skylark we suddenly heard the distinctive kerrr-ick of a male Grey Partridge proclaiming his territory. Our first tricky bird under the belt - a good start. Not a peep from the Little Owls, so we headed to Copmanthorpe Lane where a pair resides. Sadly they weren't playing ball either, so we decided to leave the village.

On to Stillingfleet Beck where a Great White Egret - possibly the same bird as I saw at Wheldrake Ings last week - had been seen in the Beck a couple of times at dawn. A Barn Owl on a gatepost was a good omen for the day. We had an enjoyable short walk and added one or two good bird race birds such as Mistle Thrush but the egret was not there, so we headed round towards Naburn. A Mandarin flying overhead near the river and shortly after a Goosander were good bonus birds and kept our mood joyous.  Round towards Deighton and sure enough the Brambling flock I had found yesterday were still present. A Woodcock was flushed out of the rape field by a low flying hot air balloon and gave us a great fly past in the early morning light (the Woodcock that is). I had only stopped briefly yesterday whilst looking for Corn Buntings, and found three Bramblings - a bonus bird. Our luck was holding, and today at least 30 Bramblings gathered in the treetops and overhead both Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings flew. Apart from Meadow Pipit we were doing well for farmland birds.

Next stop Castle Howard where we bumped into another bird race team (Chris Gomersall, Tim Jones, Adam Hutt and Jack Ashton-Booth) who were doing really well and were on 59 already! Sadly, thick fog dampened our collective spirits. Not sure how we would find any ducks in this weather! We still needed plenty of woodland birds and soon added Marsh Tit, Treecreeper and Goldcrest. Out on the water we squinted through the fog. There would be no way we would see the Scaup in this! The other team walked on ahead and then came back having not seen it. We persevered and eventually I picked up the female paddling along. Paul was chuffed, this was a new bird for him. Yesterday's Little Grebe would be impossible in these conditions, so we headed off.

The pair of Scaup that were present during yesterday's reccie. We only saw the female today in the foggy conditions.

I decided Strensall Common would be a good bet for a few heathland specialities. The fog was dense and it hindered our attempts to find Stonechat, but we did nail Green Woodpecker yaffling distantly in the fog, and a few extras, such as Long-tailed Tit and Coal Tit.

We had another chance of Stonechat at Wheldrake Ings, so we decided to head for Knapton/Poppleton/Rufforth for gulls. The young lads had cleared up with Caspian, Iceland, Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We only managed the latter frustratingly, though a lot of gulls had headed back towards the tip by the time we arrived. Disheartened and hitting the midday doldrums, we headed to Beckfield Lane to try for Waxwing. Despite an initial optimism, we failed, so headed to Micklegate Bar where a small flock had been seen earlier in the week. Up on to the Bar Walls, we found the berry-laden Rowan but apart from a Mistle Thrush and a couple of Blackbirds there was nothing present. We were just about to head off when Paul said - 'There's a Wawxing!" and sure enough, one lone Waxer was sitting quietly munching berries in the middle of the tree. We could have easily missed it - well done Paul!

As we drove through York we suddenly saw our bogey bird - Pied Wagtail - a handsome male strutting about on a path. High fives all round!

Into the Valley via a couple of sites where we failed to find Great Crested Grebe - seemingly absent from the York area this winter - we first headed to Melbourne/Thornton. Sure enough, the goose flock was happily grazing, and Lee Gregory was there scoping the Tundra Beans. Four TBGs were present along with several Pink-feet, both good birds for the race. Next we tried Seavy Carr for Snipe to no avail, until Rich decided to walk along the field edge towards Church Bridge. Suddenly two Snipe and one Jack Snipe exploded out in front of him and we all managed to see these stripy little guys. Awesome work Rich! Pausing at Church Bridge, a Little Grebe appeared right on cue and to the side a Chiffchaff called. This was a bonus and fortunately the other team arrived to look at the grebe and I got them on to the Chiffer too.

We finished the day at Wheldrake Ings where we got a flood of new birds. The fog had lifted and despite heading round to Swantail we couldn't find any Stonechats, although we had possibly left it a bit late.

 We rendezvoused on the Bridge by Wheldrake car park with the young lads and one of the other York teams (Peter Watson, Jane and Rob Chapman and Duncan Bye). It was a great end to the day. A load of geese flew in and incredibly, the lads picked out a White-front calling. We all listened and sure enough they were right! The Tawny Owls started hooting and suddenly we all heard the distinctive call of a Little Owl - brilliant. This would be our last bird of the day, and our 95th species. This was one short of the York area record, 96 set by the young lads back in 2011. They then announced that WFG had taken them to 105!! Wow! We always speculated on whether 100 was possible in the York area in January and these guys had proved it. In fact, they had smashed it.

A great day. As I drove back to Bish in the gloom, my thoughts turned to the last bird race I had done in York with Russell Slack, Andy Walker and John Beaumont. I think Russ would have been really stoked to know five teams were taking part in this in the York area, and that the young lads had smashed the record too.

Monday, 2 January 2017

2017 starts here.

Happy New Year!

It was a beautiful winter's day today, with clear blue skies and crisp air. Despite having almost lost my voice due to a throat infection and feeling decidedly ropey, I had to get out of the house to do some birding. The lure of lots of geese (38 White-fronts and 3-4 Tundra Beans) in the LDV was strong, but sadly I couldn't find the herd. Not a good start to my New Year's birding.

The valley is still dry, with no water at all visible from the platform at Thorganby and consequently a big concentration of birds at Wheldrake Ings, where some shallow floods remain.  I headed there to see what the Tower Hide could offer. Perhaps the geese might be on the floods, as they sometimes are. A few birders were present and along with Duncan Bye and family, I also met Trevor Douglas who gave me a notebook I had lost two years ago. Nice one!

The view from Tower/Andy Booth Hide

The spectacle from the hide was impressive with three Roe Deer scampering along the edge of the main meadow, and the dwindling flood holding thousands of birds, the best of which were seven Black-tailed Godwits, 40 Dunlin, 8 Ruff and dozens of Pintail. Very few geese were present however, apart from a few Canadas and Greylags. Gulls began to arrive after 3pm and shortly Trevor picked up a female Marsh Harrier cruising around over towards Swantail.

A little later, at 3.45pm I was busy looking through the gulls and Trevor casually said that he thought he had an egret flying along in the distance. I swung my scope round, expecting to see one of the local Little Egrets, but was amazed to see a large egret with a big yellow sabre of a bill, long black legs with black feet - a Great White Egret! Fab. It slowly flapped along, over the top of Swantail Hide, across the reedbed and the Pool and towards Thorganby where we lost it behind the trees. Brilliant, only my second GWE at Wheldrake and a fine start to 2017. There has been a bird in the Stillingfleet Beck recently, so this could well be the same bird.

GWE courtesy of Jeff Delve. This is what it looked like, only flying the opposite way!

After putting the news out, I returned to the gulls. A few moments later and I latched on to a rather smart adult Iceland Gull. Nothing exceptional there, but as white-wingers have been very thin on the ground so far this winter this was a nice surprise. The bird appeared to be quite grey on the primary edges but I couldn't discern any grey on the primary tips. To my surprise, as I was watching, the bird swam past another Iceland Gull! This bird seemed to be an adult too, but more advanced with a whiter head.

 The first Iceland Gull.

And the second.

Feeling very pleased, I walked back in the gathering dusk

2016. Thank you and Good Night!

Ended the year with Waxwings in York. About 40 of these Scandinavian invaders have been plundering the berries just outside the city walls at the top end of Bishopthorpe Road. With the Bar Walls glowing in the winter sunshine, they made for a fine sight and a fine end to a cracking year for birding.