Sunday, 27 September 2020

Stormy Seawatching: 25-27th September

 In a move that is completely in character I have failed to update on moths, nocmig, birding and our trip to Turkey. Rest assured some of this may, or may not make the blog in the future. What does make the blog right now is this weekends seawatching. I love seawatching, it is my absolute favourite passtime. The zen-like vigils looking, counting and generally being outside, witnessing migration feels about as real and immersing as it gets. My patch is excellent for vizmig and pretty good for seawatching. The forecast of northerly gales all weekend had me salivating. I didn't get the numbers of skuas and shearwaters that others managed including record breaking totals at Flamborough, just a few miles up the road but plenty of patch high counts and good birds made it rewarding nonetheless.

Juvenile Arctic Skua

I arrived at Barmston chock full of enthusiasm at 06:40 in the teeth of an F9 northerly and intermittant heavy rain. Four hours produced the only Sooty Shearwater of the weekend, a somewhat unbelievable statistic given that 2,000 or so passed Flamborough in the same period. 56 Fulmar represented the 6th highest count for the patch rather surprisingly. A small skein of six Pink-footed Geese pushed south over the waves. A single Grey Plover called as it headed south. After four hours, a tactical reassessment took me to Ulrome, 2km to the south, in an effort to connect with the hundreds of skuas that were being displaced by the high winds. A brace of dark morph Arctic Skuas were the sum total but they prevented a complete blank. 147 Cormorants and 3 Pintail north were the only other significant sightings.

Barnacle Geese

The relatively poor returns from Friday didn't dishearten me as others scored heavily and a slight easing of the winds provided sufficient encouragement that birds would try to escape the southern North Sea. The wind was slightly offshore which didn't look promising for shearwaters and skuas but locating again at Ulrome I remained hopeful. A delightful pale-morph juvenile Long-tailed Skua danced over the surf in the gloaming and wildfowl were evident with small parties of Teal, Wigeon and Common Scoter moving north. Final totals of 208 Teal and 61 each of both Wigeon and Common Scoter moved north with handfuls in the other direction. News of 28 Pale-bellied Brent Geese barreling north at Grimston and Hornsea had me on tenterhooks and they nearly slipped by in the breakers but I picked them up emerging from a trough, too late for a photo. Will Scott at Bempton alerted me to small parties of Barnacle Geese heading south-east there and a few minutes after 12 went north, just beyond the surf. Ten, in all likelihood, one of Will's skeins went south half an hour later. A couple of Shoveler and a Pintail sneaked north amongst their commoner cousins to round off the wildfowl interest.


An interesting juvenile skua headed north at 09:41. It flew like an Arctic but its coloration was cold. It was too light in build for a Pom and had too much white in the underwing for a long-tail. Advice from friends was that it was a particularly cold Arctic Skua and on reviewing the photos including the header it was evident that the dark, unbarred axillaries, rather bland undertail, faint double flash and structure (bill, head shape, wing shape, tail) all fit with Arctic and not the other species, but it was a challenge in the field and I would have let it go as skua sp. had I not got pictures. A further three Arctics went north late on and a trio of Bonxies also passed by.


I experimented with the Trektellen app for entering my data which was excellent. I entered gulls half-hourly, using clickers to tally them and everything else went straight in. It was easy and captured the times automatically, mapping the most regular species as buttons to speed entry. This ease of capture meant the second highest count of Great Black-backed Gulls was recorded. This species must occur regular in the autumn in decent numbers but now, hopefully I will be able to record common species more accurately. Eighteen Purple Sandpiper headed north in two flocks of 5 and 13. This is an uncommon passage species and this was easily the highest site count for passage although 54 were recorded at Fraisthorpe during a low tide, making a probably unassailable peak count.

Despite my daughter having her (covid compliant) 11th birthday sleepover last night, I was allowed to tread the hallowed turf again this morning for a few hours. I had another productive and wildfowl centric watch, kicking off with my final skua of the weekend, a Bonxie, playing truck and trailer with a juvenile Gannet. An early flurry of Red-throated Divers featured a single Black-throated Diver. Better was instore when 4 Velvet Scoters flew north. Unbeknown to me they had been tracked from Grimston to Hornsea and onward to Flamborough before getting picked up even further north off Durham and beyond. Virtually no auks were seen on the previous two days but I had plenty battling through the foam. Two early Dunlin skipped over the waves and looked worryingly like Leach's Petrels but sadly they proved not to be. Passage died very suddenly at 09:30 and I took the prescient option of heading home not long after to earn brownie points. Fingers crossed the patch does better next time but it was a fun three mornings.

The full counts are on Trektellen:

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Lammergeier in the Peak District

A few weeks ago a Lammergeier was seen two miles away from where I was, just outside Birmingham but I found out when I was 20 miles away and it continued onward. This was incredibly the bird which flirted with the channel crossing before heading to the Low Countries and losing its tail. After being seen on and off for a little while, its roost was discovered in the Peak District and not only that but in South Yorkshire. Trying to get my ducks in a row was tricky with work being busy and various other demands on my time but I saw an opening yesterday evening which necessitated an overnight stay in the car.

Luckily I got to site slightly earlier than planned and managed an evening assault on the hills, setting off on the long walk just after 6pm and arriving 5.5km later at 7:30. The bird was in place, on its plinth, waiting to drop into roost. The light was exceptional and the conditions a delight. It gave an excellent performance captured in the video below until unfortunately it was flushed by walkers and disappeared to the west. Thankfully it is still in the general area so hopefully those that head up will still see it. An absolute enormous bird and whilst its categorization by BOURC is still up in the air due to the shelving of the previous one and the fact it is a bird known to have come from the alpine reintroduced population, none of that diluted my enjoyment.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Back to Barmston

We find ourselves in this new Covid World, nearly two weeks after some easing of lockdown. This has had the effect that I am now able to travel to the coast to go birding. I wanted to make a more concerted effort at Barmston and Ulrome this year and so I have been putting in short evening watches along with more extended early morning visits. Encouragement from Andrew Hanby has led to us merging our Trektellen sites. The Barmston/Fraisthorpe site now incorporates the stretch from Fraisthorpe to Ulrome and the various watchpoints utilised therein (Auburn Farm, the Pill Boxes, Barmston Cliffs, Barmston Car Park and Ulrome). In-line with this I am trying to collate the historical records from the area to add to Trek in due course. The aim for me (I won't speak for Andy) is to try and produce more organised records in an observatory style, using a more structured approach to my birding to make it count and hopefully see better birds and in-turn attract more birders to the site getting it greater coverage. I have clickers and will count!

Seen coming off the sea and heading inland at 06:56 on 21st May this was reward for getting up early.
The question then comes, what will I count? Well most recently it seems it is Marsh Harriers. They have bred on site, or attempted to do so previously but not this year. I have had three different birds since I returned including this smart male, above coming off the sea on 21st May. A cream-crown headed north over the bay at 06:28 on 17th May and another was quartering the marsh on the evening of 15th May. I did wonder if this represented a breeding attempt at the time but a foraging female isn't a promising sign in that regard as it indicates the male is failing to provision the nest effectively.

Barmston rarely has huge numbers of waders but it does get some good ones. By May most of the local birds are already down to it and it is the Arctic breeding species and populations you see. A brief trill alerted me to this gem of a Whimbrel dropping onto the beach. Other species seen include the snazzy breeding Sanderling, pasty Dunlin headed way up and psammodromus/tundrae Ringed Plover. Small flocks rove north along the shore or skip over the waves in the bay. I live in hope of a Curlew Sandpiper or stint amongst them but none have been detected as yet.

A sprinkling of wildfowl has been on the move with diversity outstripping numbers which is to be expected at this time of year. A flock of 23 Barnacle Geese flew south at 06:35 yesterday, as I arrived on the cliff top. What I didn't know was that Keith Clarkson had 20 of these roosting on the sand at Hunmanby at 05:55 before they departed south and picked up some kin. This party later landed on the Humber for a rest as the passed the Spurn peninsula. I also had a duo headed in the opposite direction later in the morning which were picked up by Will Scott at Speeton. Barnacle Geese in late May get a bad rap and are often dismissed as escapes but the situation with this species is much murkier. Birds breed all along the flyway to Russia and have increased massively in recent times in the Low Countries and Sweden. Is it these birds that have contributed to the explosion in breeding birds in the UK or is the feral population the main cause or perhaps it is a combination of the two. Birds ringed in Russia have bred in the UK but there has been little tracking within this population. What is known is that late May is the peak time for departures to breeding grounds both near and far along the English east coast as well as in the Low Countries.

Other wildfowl highlights include a duo of Tufted Duck south on 17th May and single Shelduck south on two occasions. Tufted Duck are a scarce enough bird whilst seawatching to be a highlight and May is the peak for passage at Hunmanby Gap. Here at Barmston, the third week of May is the peak week but birds pass at similar levels from mid-July to late-August whilst the spring passage is more concentrated. Five drake Eider headed north yesterday which were my first of the year and a Great Northern Diver in non-breeding plumage lumbered south at distance this evening, shimmering in the haze.

On land most of the migrants are back in with singing Reed and Sedge Warblers, a pair of Stonechat and plenty of Corn Buntings. In fact there are so many Corn Buntings I have got quite excited. There were two singing males south of the marsh, another south of Barmston camp and nine males in the usual area, up from a previous high count of seven males for the site. This species seems to have had a renaissance somewhat locally. Fingers crossed it continues. Twelve singing male Corn Buntings is quite something and that song is a delight. You can shove your jangly keys, its much better than that! More prosaically were my first Red-legged Partridge on patch, seemingly a breeding pair. This isn't great news and I hope it doesn't put pressure on the Grey Partridges which call the area home.

Finally it is great to have Andrew back birding in the area. He has put a lot of time into the site in previous years but he took a few years out, much as I have done and now drifted back. I look forward to his efforts and hopefully some good birds shared with him over the coming months. 

I aim to be back on patch tomorrow morning. It is blowing south-westerly F5-8. We shall see what it's like! I will be putting together a blog post on my lockdown birding locally to home with an emphasis on Skerne Wetlands and West Beck over the next few days.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Happy Early Birthday to Me

I have another (!?!) hobby. This one is the final fulfillment of a latent desire to get involved. I am currently rocking a new Heath Trap with a 12w actinic. A small moth trap. This is a neighbour friendly job and one that will hopefully get me involved properly in a hobby that I have been looking at for years.

My lovely wife decided that rather than wrap it and give it to me on my birthday, I could have a run straight away. It was cool and still but come the morning I was excited to see what I had caught. I managed 7 moths of two species, hardly earth shattering but as I have only trapped in the late summer both were new. Six Hebrew Characters and one Common Quaker, both names that I recognise and now in the trap. Hebrew Character is easy enough to identify but Common Quaker is similar to a number of other species which fly at the same time so that took a bit of bookwork. There were a couple of midges but no other bycatch. I didn't trap the following night as it was cooler and windy. I redeployed the trap on the 18th and blanked so it went back out the following night. There were four moths on 19th with three Hebrew Characters and my first Early Grey. Last night I trapped again and managed two moths, both Hebrew Characters. I am looking forward to a bit more diversity as we move on.

Common Quaker

Hebrew Character
Early Grey

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The Baffling World of Nocturnal Migration

I am now eight days into my NocMigging adventure. Well nine days but the recorder didn't work properly on the first night. Or the third. So I am seven nights of recording in and it has been a revelation. So far I have recorded nocturnal flight calls of 20 species of which Mallard is the most regularly recorded with 1-2 flights per hour. These come with the caveat that many birds are breeding in the drains surrounding the house. I 'think' I had some migrant birds on a couple of occasions but from 68 records it is hard to be sure. In addition I have recorded duck sp. on 26 occasions which all bar one record I think refer to uncalling Mallard where all you can hear is the wing beat. I am a touch unsure whether my Oystercatcher and Curlew records contain migrants. As with Mallard there are records which sound like they are birds heading over at height but Curlew is a nightly occurance as a pair breed in the field adjacent to the house and there is at least one additional pair on Nafferton Carrs. I'm also pretty sure that of the five records of Oystercatcher, most refer to a pair in the village somewhere.

Little Ringed Plover Sonogram
Birds I am more sure are migrants are the rest of the wildfowl with a single records of Gadwall, two records of Wigeon and Teal and five (!) records of Common Scoter despite missing the big movement (well I sat in the garden and listened live). My first Grey Heron went over in the small hours last night which may be a migrant but may also be associated with the heronry on Nafferton Carrs. Perhaps the most surprising thing has been the occurrence of rallids. Moorhen is the third most commonly recorded species with 13 records in 7 nights whilst both Coot and Water Rail have been recorded on three occasions each. Moorhen breeds widely nearby and the calls are sometimes extended so I suspect birds are displaying and there is some territorial stuff going on but doubtless some birds are migrants too.

I discussed two species of wader in the first paragraph but three species are unequivocal migrants, Little Ringed Plover , Golden Plover, and Snipe . A single record of the first was recorded in flight calling nine times giving a perfect doppler as it passed over on 6th April. I have managed six records of Golden Plover and a couple of Snipe. When it comes to passerines there hasn't been a perfusion with winter thrushes dominating. Redwing has been recorded on 14 occasions to make it the second most regularly recorded species with each record consisting typically of a single descending seep call. There have been single records of Fieldfare and Song Thrush chuckling and tsiking respectively as they head home to Scandinavia and beyond. The only other passerine I have recorded seemingly on migration was Blackcap but this one had finished its jaunt, seemingly pitching in at 01:55 on 11th April and singing a single phrase. I saw it holding territory in the morning and subsequently it sings odd single phrases overnight.

I am also getting a handle on the breeding and resident birds and there is a certain pattern to the way they occur. I set the recorder for civil dusk as per the NocMig protocol and in theory record until civil dawn. I say in theory because most of the time the rechargeable batteries fade at about that time due to the drop in temperature and 20 minutes prior to civil dawn, the garden Blackbird joins in the dawn chorus and obliterates the sonogram. He also tends to sing up to and occasionally just beyond dusk. The local Robin starts earlier in the morning and later in the evening and whilst the song obscures some things it isn't as loud and is more constrained with fewer harmonics with long pauses between phrases. Song Thrush would be quite bad except the closest seems to be about 100 yards away - slightly different to a decade ago when a pair bred in the garden. Other resident species recorded after dark include Rooks, Crows, Jackdaws and Magpies both as they enter/exit roost and occasionally when they are disturbed. The local Pheasants cluck away enthusiastically from the small hours but irregularly enough to not be a nuisance. I haven't heard Grey Partridge yet.

Finally we come to owls. Tawny Owl seems straight forward enough as there is a pair nearby but not within the street. They occasionally duet but mostly it is the male. He calls most often after midnight for a couple of hours but can call at anytime when he duels with other birds in adjacent territories. Barn Owl is a bit more complicated. Until last night I had heard it on a couple of occasions, always sounding distant. Yesterday I found a single feather in the garden and whitewash on the wall. Last night a distant call was followed up very quickly by a call from within the garden. There was further whitewash on the fence and on the bird table. I have no idea where this bird might be nesting - there are no barns immediately adjacent and few mature trees. This is something I will be following up for sure.

So how have I found it? NocMig is quite overwhelming initially - everything sounds different. I am pretty confident on my ID from sounds during the day, doing surveys almost daily for 10 years and lots of CBC which is primarily by ear and yet the nocturnal flight calls can be bewildering. There are a number of species which give calls which seem alien to me, especially Water Rail which can sound like a wader, a passerine and like a little pig. Having said that, like anything new, it gets easier with practise. I am processing the recordings faster each day although it still takes 3 hours or so. I am familiar with all the creaks and groans and now recognise the sonograms for the regular species. Most importantly I am absolutely loving it. There is a voyage of discovery each morning and the joy of solving a puzzle or adding something unexpected and new is amazing. Given the current situation with Covid-19 it is gratifying to find something where I am learning a new skill, building upon this and it has potential professional ramifications. My Zoom H1n is dead easy and all the information you need to get started is out there including survey protocols, how to use audacity, how to analyse the data and support groups on ID on WhatsApp, Facebook, Xeno-canto and Twitter. If this all sounds fun then definitely get involved. It cost a total of about £100 including rechargeable batteries and a dead kitten style wind shield for the mics.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Lockdown Listing and the Wonder of Nocmig

Last night I stood in my garden, no bins (it was dark), glass of gin in hand, and listened. There is was boop- boop-boop. Closer and closer, a little to the south, approaching from the west before heading away to the east with the doppler effect in full force. Common Scoter added to my garden list. This was the first of six flocks as a mass exodus from the Irish Sea had confined birders across the country out listening in the dark. There was a time lag as well so what was happening at 9 in Blackburn happened at 10 in York and then started at half 10 here near Driffield and was 15 minutes later for those at Flamborough. An absolutely incredible movement and proabbly so well witnessed due to the ongoing situation with coronavirus - would so many birders have stood in their gardens if we were free to head out the following day? My fifth flock of the night was a direct hit and I could hear the whistling of the wings. It was genuinely exciting to listen to.

Common Scoter wasn't the only garden tick as I picked up two flocks of Wigeon and a single flock of Teal. These were all new for the garden and took the garden list onto 79 (when I added Lesser Black-backed Gull which I have seen umpteen times but forgotten to add). I am taking part in the Lockdown Listing competition, counting birds seen from the garden whilst we are restricted with movement. So far I am on 45 species with a surprise Goldcrest this morning. There is a pair breeding about 80m from teh house but across a railway line so I didnt expect them to pitch up. I havent had anything else exceptional or unusual although a flock of Redwing early last week were good to add this late on. Im still waiting the returning Blackcap and Willow Warbler on my Blackthorn blossom.

Aside from the birds it has been a delight to see the first insects returning to the garden. Temperatures got up to 16c last week and as a result I recorded four species of butterfly, Small White, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Brimstone. Bees were also conspicuous with Honeybee the first followed rapidly by the now ever present Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens. These were followed later in the week by the Buffish Mining Bee Andrena nigroaenea and then Tree Bumblebee with a single queen seen. A colder turn over the weekend with northerly winds meant only the Buff-tails were still about but yesterday it warmed up and I had the first Early Bumblebee queens. I have also had my first Tapered Droneflies Eristalis pertinax which are ever present, a queen social wasp although I didn't manage a photograph so don't know which species. On the spider front there were plenty of Missing Sector Orb-weavers Zygiella x-notata out and about last night. The garden also has an abundance of wildflowers starting to appear with a violet coming into bloom. When it is fully established I will key it to species but I expect, given the date it will be Early Dog-Violet.

Buffish Mining Bee Andrena nigroaenea
The limited horizons and fact that I have been furloughed mean that I will be looking closely at the garden, what flies over, lands in and generally calls it home I am planning some habitat enhancement for amphibians and grass snakes (the latter is very much on the wish list). I am looking at getting a nocmig setup after the scoter fun and also considering a moth trap. A PSL list of the garden is very much on the cards. To anyone that is reading I hope you stay healthy and safe and are able to enjoy what is on your doorstep.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Pelagic Mayhem - Sydney March 2018

This is a much belated video, compiled from a number of short clips I managed on the Sydney pelagic I took part in during March 2018. Here, two years later, I am counting down to my next trip which is due in October 2021 and my new found inability to edit videos together yielded this. I hope you enjoy the video as much as I enjoyed reliving some of the birds!

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive