Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Red-footed Falcon at Thorne Moors

I'm pretty rubbish at finding rare birds. I've been birding for 15 years properly more or less and have a grand total of zero rare birds found but recently I have been turning up the odd county rarity both home and away with a couple of accepted Rough-legged Buzzards in Northumberland and Yorkshire, an American Golden Plover in Northumberland, Great White Egret in Nottinghamshire, Caspian Gull, Bee-eater and Leach's petrel in Somerset, Crane in Lincolnshire and a few more. Nothing earth shattering there but I really enjoy looking and sometimes I get a stupid idea about a bird and poof it appears. It happened for the Rough-legged Buzzard at Barmston and it happened again for the AGP at St Mary's Island. I thought the conditions and timing all looked good for the species and I was tuned in and expecting to find them. It happened again last week. I went to Thorne Moors looking for Red-footed Falcon. I was fortunate in that I had an afternoon of free time as I couldnt get back from a course to set up the laptop and my wife and kids were out with a friend so I could utilise the warmth of the late afternoon sun that was heating it up to 18c after a misty, murky start.

Tim Ward's shot shows exactly how I saw this bird initially.
I knew that the first Hobbys should be in at Thorne in a pre-breeding aggregation and that these would be concentrated by the fresh hatches of insects given the cool, early conditions. Thorne is a classic Red-foot location but the date, 30th April, was perhaps a week early. The air-flow was from the south and I marched to the middle of the moor watching a lanky looking ringtail harrier fold-up and dive from a couple of hundred meters up. Its jizz screamed Monty's but there was a significant heat haze and it was perhaps 1km away so a brief view wasn't going to go anywhere in terms of firming up species. A Red Kite ambled over - these guys seem to be everywhere now. Underfoot I disturbed a large male Adder which was foraging and shot off into the undergrowth. Marsh Harriers and Hobbys were obvious across the moor as I made for the picnic bench, north of the watchpoint, with at least half a dozen of each on view most of the time.

Another shot from Tim Ward showing the slightly blunt winged appearance
Watching the Hobbys I started checking them for Red-foots but the strong lighting made everything look dark underneath. I had 15, 16 no...20 Hobby in the air at the same time. Everywhere, high, low, in singles, pairs and loose groups. It was humming with them after a massive hatch of Four-spotted Chasers and Large Red Damselflies. Two probable Swifts were just too high to be sure they were Hobbys. Everytime I scanned with the scope more falcons were behind the ones I was locking on to. A loose group of half a dozen birds started hawking low-down infront of me. I noticed one looked a little smaller with gleaming white patches on the inner primaries of the upperwing. Watching it, it worked in a more relaxed way with less aggressive hawking behaviour and generally flew lower at a more consistent height. It came a little closer and my anticipation grew. It banked and was slatey blue-grey underneath. An adult male Red-footed Falcon no less. This was exactly as I imagined it but what I hadn't anticipated was quite how bright and obvious those upperwing flashes would be.

Not obviously dark underneath when strongly lit
Over the next 90 minutes it hawked to within 50 meters, remaining fairly loyal to the loose group of birds. I was joined 15 minutes after I found it by David Slack. It was great for someone to corroborate the sighting as I had forgotten my camera and try as I might, I failed to phonescope the bird in flight. I got lots of shots of fresh air and the odd blurry Hobby as I latched onto the wrong bird. Tim Ward very kindly let me use his shots from the following day here and there are photos out there on Graham Catley's blog:

Nb - whilst I was looking at the bird I was talking to David about features I was seeing and he was agreeing yet we realised we were looking in different directions. Neither of us saw two birds simultaneously but two adult males were seen together on 12th May which at the time of writing is the final sighting.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Spurn in late April

Water Pipit

Like most birders I love a trip to Spurn. Despite my relative proximity I dont get there as often as I'd like. I have managed two trips in the last nine days. The first, for my 37th birthday no less was on Good Friday. I spent the entire time at Numpties and it was great. Hirundines were streaming south in reasonable numbers with 3 figure totals for both Sand Martin and Swallow plus a ringtail Hen Harrier went south and three Whimbrel north which were my first of the year. Ten Arctic Terns headed east out of the Estuary for another year tick. Four Wheatears scampered around Clubleys Field and a Hooded Crow blogged about. A handful of flava and alba wagtails south harboured at least two White Wagtails. Tardy Redwing and Fieldfare were great to see as was a female Brambling that wheezed its way past. The highlight of the visit was a surprise breeding plumage Water Pipit which pitched into Clubleys as I was thinking about packing up. I failed to get a photo and was on my own without my radio. It slunk out of site and I assumed it would walk back over the shallow brow in the grass but after 30 minutes I'd given up. I was walking back to the car when it picked up out of some reeds onto a bund. I managed to rattle off a few phone scoped pics before I headed off.

Red Kite
After yesterdays Black Kite at Spurn and the Alpine Swift at Flamborough I was optimistic for this morning at Spurn. Initial promise fizzled out but I still managed to catch up with a few decent bits and pieces including a 2CY Spoonbill heading south at half 6 and a 3CY Red Kite which blogged about, both of which were Spurn ticks for me. A little movement over the sea included 3 Manx Shearwaters and 4 Sandwich Terns. A female Ring Ouzel pitched onto a bush by the warren briefly and I was leaving a Marsh Harrier was briefly strung as a Black Kite. Alas it was not to be. A single Whimbrel went north on the sea and there was a steady stream of Yellow wagtails south. Cool winds and rain seemed to stop any movement and only a handful of swallows passed whilst three House Martins were hawking over the Kilnsea. A Tree Pipit alighted briefly on wires by the Warren and I managed a pants shot of it.

A very blurry Spoonbill
Tree Pipit

Early April in Eastern England

Yellow Wagtail - Frampton
I have had a pretty decent April after a quiet start to the year. I found a Great White Egret whilst working in Nottinghamshire and a Crane at RSPB Frampton Marsh whilst there was a volunteers meeting so it turned into a big twitch. I've also been lucky enough to find half a dozen Peregrine nests and a few other rare breeders both whilst working and here in East Yorkshire.

Crane - Frampton. It was dark and distant!
Great White Egret - Catton, Notts. iPhone binned.
Obviously migrants have been the order of the day over the last month and the first Blackcaps and Willow Warblers opened the month up and I have caught up with most of the warblers now with Garden and Grasshopper still to go. I took a brief trip to March Farmers in Cambridgeshire on the Nene washes whilst I was working in the Fens and saw 18 of the 21 reported Cranes in one flock.

Thirteen Cranes at March Farmers. Great birds.

Andrena fulva - one of many females I have seen round and about.
White Wagtail - Frampton

Monday, 1 April 2019

Saints and Devils

My wife and kids were at Leeds arena watching Disney on Ice so that gave me the perfect opportunity to visit St Aiden's for the first time. I have been to the Swillington Ings complex a handful of times over the years for rare birds but never St Aidan's. One trip to Skelton Lake with a migraine to see a Spotted Sandpiper with Collared Pratincole and Caspian Tern at Astley Lake. I had heard that the Black-necked Grebes were returning. Jim Welford, a friend who is on the committee at Swilly said that the site is impressive with the scale and the way it is hidden until you get past the visitor centre and I totally agree. Hidden by the dragline machine from the mine and the new visitor centre you get on the first path and the enormity of the site opens up with a starkness as you look over the ridge and furrow which sits in a bowl surrounded by spoil mounds which have grown up into almost downland pasture. A mile in the distance sit the reedbeds and it was here I was heading towards. En route I came across my first Sand Martins of the year when 30+ sallied in the fresh wind.

So if the site is the Saint then these are definitely the devils with their ruby red eyes. At least 10 were about and these two were mere feet from the bank, indifferent to the public. They briefly did a bit of display but soon gave up.

Aside from the grebes a Ringed Plover was smart and there were five Pink-footed Geese up on the hillside. These were nestled between a variety of domestic Greylags and Canadas and somethings inbetween. A little gem was hidden amongst the gank - a fine Tundra Bean Goose. I watched it feeding on the grass for a while amongst the Greylags. Soon though it was time for me to clear off and hear about how one of the lions fell over in the Lion King skit.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Close to Home

I havent been out much this year yet for a variety of reasons. Busy, CBA, it's cold, it's winter etc. Today was supposed to be a full day out in the field but too much of Islay's finest and a late night playing Red Dead Redemption 2 (gaming isn't just for kids folks) mean't I started late and gave up early. With a slight hangover I opted to stay local and went out on Wansford Carrs for a couple of hours. It sounded like the Somme with Pheasant shoots all over the place but there were plenty of birds. Snakeholme Pastures is a small YWT reserve sitting on the Driffield Canal SSSI and it is being extended with works along the West Beck linking it with Skerne Wetlands. Some fabulous habitat is present and much of the adjacent areas are managed for shooting so contain some decent areas. It is the most northerly chalk stream in the UK with crystal clear water and gravel beds which attract spawning Brook and River Lamprey.

 A few Mute Swans fed on the carrs but nothing wilder. A mixed flock of thrushes contained all five species that you would expect in winter including my first Mistle Thrushes of 2019. They were all digging for worms in the plethora of mole hills. Further south a couple of Buzzards were mewing away whilst sat on small pylons and the reason for their annoyance soon became obvious as a Peregrine was bombing them with some persistance. There were stacks of brand new owl boxes up so I am hopeful that there will be an upturn in the local populus soon. Plenty of otter sign failed to turn any up. Some of the best habitat was some hawthorn scrub that was birdless but I have high hopes for the coming year.

Little Egret

Returning to the car after a decent ramble along the river featuring a smart male Kestrel and a loafing Grey Heron a cracking Little Egret floated along infront of me. Now a regular wintering species it was much appreciated on an overcast day. All this may not add up to much but its literally five minutes from front door and was awesome to be outside.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Autumn 2018

I have been busy since my last post (ed: sort of as I've cross posted with yesterday as this has taken so long) as an author and bird recorder which has eaten all of my blog writing time. I have produced the draft of the Swans and Geese section of the 2016 Yorkshire Bird Report and collated the East Yorkshire RBBP information for 2017. Unsurprisingly it took ages! Autumn 2018 wasn't a classic by any means with weeks of mild south westerlies but it did manage to be better than 2017 (which was by most accounts the worst autumn of all time, penance perhaps for 2016). For me time was limited as I have moved offices to Leeds meaning more time at home and more time being a Dad, both things for which I am grateful. So swifts...

A non-birding weekend with my sister, brother-in-law, their son and my mother was pleasant and I had no time for rare birds should any arrive unless they were within 30 minutes and I could get there after 4pm and before half 5 on Sunday 14th October. Even then it would be tight. I walked in from the pub having had a cracking Sunday lunch when the mega alert went off as I crossed the threshold to the house: PACIFIC SWIFT: HORNSEA MERE. Holy cow Batman. I barely spoke to my wife before I bolted - she knew. I don't twitch at the drop of the hat often but this was within 30 minutes of home and was a proper mega. I was the first twitcher on the scene and was the only one to see it at point blank rain in the drizzle, hawking low over the second field before disappearing west. Mutterings of short wings and it not feeling right for Pacific and perhaps being a better fit for White-rumped were going on. The crowd built and no sighting in 20 minutes meant that people spread out and it was located over a shelter belt at the west end of the mere with House Martins. The crowd grew to 250 people - dusk was approaching. Extended views were had and as the weather improved the true jizz of the bird was appreciable, lighter and more darting than Common Swift although with no experience of any swifts with white rumps, what this meant was alien to me. It was no coming out on the pager as suspected White-rumped Swift and James Lowen's remarkable capture nailed the fine white trailing edge to the tertials. Amazingly a first for the UK and the second confirmed record for northern Europe. I slunk away as further photos from Tim Jones backed up what James' photo had captured.

I didn't manage much further birding until a week off but westerlies and no cloud meant bugger all birds and I put shelves up instead. On Thursday 25th October it looked as if the westerlies had a slight northern element to them and out to the north-west it was howling from Iceland straight into the North Sea. With it being late October I was hoping for a few Pomarine Skuas and I wasnt disappointed. I was greeted by Brett and a couple of Twite which kicked about all morning. Apparently I had already missed a pom which boded well. We had a handful of Arctic and Great Skuas and 9 Little Gulls went north distantly. A trio of the scarcer divers flew north with a single Black-throated and two Great Northern Divers. The real highlights were a Short-eared Owl which came in off and the poms, all adults, including several with full spoons with a total of 30 south and 4 north. The full count is on trektellen here:

Not the most amazing quality video (it looked better on my phone!).

I went back the following day and numbers of Poms continued to climb with 156 all heading south including a few juveniles. Over 1000 Fieldfare came in off with a Merlin, 2 Peregrine and 2 Woodcock. Singles of both Black-throated and Red-throated Diver flew north along with a Velvet Scoter south. There were 4 Mediterranean Gulls  of various age classes knocking about and 30 Great Skuas were recorded along with 9 of both Manx Shearwater and Arctic Skua. Another excellent seawatch but better was to come.

I missed the Saturday which was excellent and featured a few Little Auks and other quality bits and pieces but returned for the Sunday when it was howling out of the north and bitter. We huddled on the cliff top out of the wind and watched birds entering and leaving Bridlington Bay rather than brave the icy wind. Again there were good numbers of Poms with 45 north including the lovely dark morph adult with spoons in the video clip below.

We also had a strong passage of Eider heading north with 244 birds seen, singles of Scaup and Tufted Duck, a few Velvet Scoter, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks and some Dark-bellied Brents. Across the day there were 5 Black-throated and 6 Great Northern Divers north although I only saw a fraction of these as I left just after midday. The highlight for me was a Storm Petrel which flew north - my first at Flamborough and my second in Yorkshire. I was also fortunate enough to see a party of Crossbills head high south, a Sooty Shearwater, a few Manxies and Bonxies. Cold weather movement of Little Gulls and Little Auks was evident with 365 of the former and 175 of the latter moving north close to the cliff base. It felt like an excellent bird could pass at any time. I missed the Grey Phal and Black Guillemot but could live with my haul! I headed off to Barmston to try and get some site ticks...

I managed three hours at Barmston from 13:25 until 16:25 and the feeling that good birds were continuing to pass was supported by a couple of Little Auks over the beach within minutes of arriving. A female Pochard with 3 Eider was a surprise as was a Long-tailed Duck with a Razorbill. Pretty much everything was heading north. A couple of Bonxies and an Arctic Skua were good site records and beyond belief were the THREE Grey Phalaropes. One was present in the surf for over an hour whilst another two zipped through north. Eider continuned to move with 41 north and there was a total of 27 Little Gulls and 10 Little Auks. Sadly it was all curtailed by failing light. An awesome day!

There is also a Little story about some swifts that I saw on the way to work but that can wait for next time.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Plague of Corn Buntings

Today at Barmston there were about 300 Corn Buntings. This is an enormous total in a national context and truly an amazing sight and sound. I have only previously seen these sort of numbers on the meseta in Spain and with them flocked up the jangling keys sounded amazing. Trevor Charlton was already on site with another birder counting the buntings when I had a paddle along to the Earl's Dike. I had about 50 birds foraging around the Dike with Goldfinches and Yellowhammers and simultaneously Trevor had 226 perched in a single hedgerow. With foraging birds in the field and birds in adjacent hedgerows it seems likely that 300 or so are present in the general area. A female Merlin sliced through my flock by the Dike like a hot knife through butter but fortunately for the buntings missed everything. Settling for haranguing the birds in the next hedgerow.

Earl's Dike - the bunting flock were foraging on the corner and in the fringing reeds
Walking up the west side of the fields I got nice and close for a count and managed 177 including 165 in a single flock. The female Merlin settled in a tree keeping the buntings alert. Amongst them were plenty of Reed Bunting, Tree Sparrow and Linnet as well as the aforementioned Goldfinches and Yellowhammers.
Part of the 165 I had together
Checking offshore was somewhat forlorn as there was little movement over the high tide and just two Red-throated Divers and a whopping 33 Great Crested Grebes. A few Turnstones and Ringed Plover were on the breakwater south of Barmston.
Silhouetted Merlin
 As I was leaving I noticed a Hooded Crow preening for all its worth, looking a bit tatty. Two had flown over earlier in the same general area and three were present today but I managed two sightings of singles plus one of two birds together so can't be sure I saw all three birds.
Hooded Crow
 In the afternoon I watched a reedbed area nearby and had four Marsh Harriers coming into roost including some epic display from a couple of males trying to entice a female to retire near them.

Ornithological Idiocy

How brains and birds become mutually exclusive