Thursday, 12 August 2021

A Spanish Escape

 As I type, we are over the English Channel, having waved goodbye to Exeter, thirty-seven thousand feet below. A quick zip over the channel,  and then passing over Brittany, and on to Bilbao, Madrid and finally Malaga. After touchdown it will be pointing the rental car in the direction of Sierra de Grazalema. We are spending a fortnight on the margins of the Parc Nacional, staying in a villa, perched on the side of the mountain, placed to receive the golden combo of raptor passage, sunshine and cerveza.

I have been researching eBird for a couple of weeks and armed with John Cantelo’s guide and the Natural History guide to Western Andalucia, I hope to explore, despite the heat and limitations of Covid-19. I will be keeping a record of the passage and hoping to update the blog every day or two. Allied with this, my daughter Isabelle is keen that I endeavour to find some of the local herpetofauna and doubtless there will be butterflies aplenty.

Our adventure began this morning with a 2am wakeup call. Extracting an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old from their beds was tricky but within 30 minutes we were upright and suitably caffeinated. The trip over to Leeds Bradford from East Yorkshire was interrupted by no fewer than four Tawny Owls, one of which was feasting on a rabbit carcass in the road on Garreby Hill. Five Red Foxes were seen in Leeds, including a couple playing on a verge. We stopped, showing the kids these two, seemingly oblivious to our attentions. Before long we were parked at the airport and ready for our travels. After a challenging year thus far with my health, it is fantastic to feel much better and I am hopeful that my various ailments are resolving. Feeling better than I have in nearly 6 months I cant wait for the first raptor from the veranda. Now, first bird, what do you think? Feral pigeon or house sparrow?

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Albert Ross

 On Monday night, news that the Black-browed Albatross had not only returned from the dead but it had returned to Bempton. A frame-filling photo of it cruising along the cliff top was plenty enough to enthuse me. Sadly a busy day at work, my commitments as a parent and Englands Euro 2020 last 16 tie against Germany conspired to make a trip to Bempton extremely difficult. I sat at my desk with pin sharp pictures arriving via social media at regular intervals. I packed it all away, put on my World Cup 2006 top, dropped my cynicism and sat back for one of the most enjoyable games I have watched as an England fan. In the elation after the game, as reports of the albatross continued to roll in I asked me wife if a 'quick trip' to Bempton could be facilitated. She was also giddy from the result and acquiesced. I shot off and was nodding at Andrew Kinghorn as I limped to the cliff edge not 20 minutes later.

The bird itself was giving people the run around as I arrived and marching half a mile up and down the cliff top wasn't ideal, especially given I have torn the meniscus in my left knee. The bird helpfully relocated from the sea on to Staple Newk and soon I was watching it sat amongst the flowers and gannets on the upper cliff. Whilst fantastic to see, one of my overriding takeaways from seeing albatrosses in the southern oceans (well 20 miles off Sydney) is that birds in flight are far more impressive than those sat on the deck. Thankfully the bird didn't seem entirely happy in any of its resting spots and would sally round in tight loops before landing every few minutes. This allowed the full majesty of this species, which whilst only 20% bigger than the gannets is wholly more impressive in flight with its whippy wingtips and contrasting mantle and tail colour which allied with the eye shadow and mascara makes it very dashing.

Pretty soon the gloom descended and the bird moved out of sight but not before I was satiated and one of the most enjoyable days in recent memory came to a close. After missing the previous visit by mere seconds I was very relieved to get this back, especially after the stories of the bird being downed by nine White-tailed Eagles between Denmark and Sweden earlier in the spring.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

April Nocmig (notmig?)

 April was a tricky month. It is normally excellent but after a crazy March it certainly calmed down with fewer records of fewer species thanks to the spell of settled, cold and clear northerlies that we have been experiencing. This has delayed birds arriving but the lack of cloud has meant those that have passed have been able to fly at great height, beyond the reach of my microphone. In total I recorded on just 15 nights which indicates my frustration. Mallards were a constant and I suspect a pair are nesting in a ditch not far away as I hear them most of the night. Oystercatcher have settled in the village with display heard regularly and there are Curlew in the village but the territory over the house seems to have disappeared since they built the estate next door. The odd snatch of display has been recorded but nothing like last year.

Common Scoter  has again been the biggest feature of April. Despite a 50% reduction in effort in April compared to March, I recorded 28 flocks and 702 calls which represent a drop of 50% in flocks but only 20% interms of calls. Birds also tended to pass much later in the evening, generally starting just before midnight. My guess is that these are Irish sea birds from the Irish coast which take a couple of hours to cross from Louth and adjacent areas to hit the English and Welsh coasts of Liverpool Bay before making the same crossing over the Pennines the Welsh ones do. The peak night was 7-8th April with 10 flocks and 286 calls and only a single flock (or bird perhaps) after 14th April, which gave just 4 calls. Given I only recorded one night in the first week, it is likely I missed some stuff too.

Water Rail were recorded on four occasions with singles on 4th, 12th, 13th and 14th. It is unclear whether these were migrants or resident birds roding, The situation was similar for Moorhen with 11 passes from 4th and 158 calls. Gull passage was noted with Black-headed Gull noted on two nights, 3rd and 7th April and Herring Gull with a single on 8th giving a couple of calls and then a minimum of three birds giving 115 calls on 22nd and three flocks on 25th giving 777 calls. Thrushes were scarce with singles of Redwing, Blackbird and Robin across the month. Aside from the displaying Curlew, there were two flocks of presumed migrants recorded, on 13th and 14th April, with 96 calls recorded in total. Aside from the Scoter there was very little in terms of duck movement with a couple of flocks of Teal on 8th and 16th and a single flock of Wigeon on 19th April. A single record of Little Grebe gave a pretty decent Whimbrel impression and a Nocmig lifer was recorded on 25th when a single Greenfinch call was picked up as it flew over in the late evening.

Monday, 26 April 2021

An Odd Week

Over the past 6 weeks I have had a bad back. Bad enough to merit full dose painkillers for a fortnight. This led to immobility and ultimately a blood clot in my left leg. After spending the Saturday before last getting checked out and then a scan on my leg on my birthday, the Monday, a DVT was confirmed and I was put on blood thinners. We have a family history of DVT so it wasnt a great shock but it was a much needed wakeup call. I am as fat and unfit as I have ever been. My change of jobs has led to a drop in my activity by a third. I need to look after myself better. I have 3 weeks of recovery from the clot and 3 months of blood thinners. In the first 3 weeks I am allowed gentle exercise (which I have taken to mean swimming and walking). I have upped my walking markedly and the swimming is being phased in with my first trip yesterday and another before work tomorrow. I am getting out early each morning for a walk before work if I'm not swimming. This is a long road but I am determined to make some strides. The end point? Not being as fat and being much, much fitter.

I combined my morning walk yesterday with a trip to Bempton to pay my annual respects to the Gannets and Puffins. All the usual suspects were present with Gannets and Kittiwakes on the updrafts and the three auk species darting about. A Whitethroat rattled as I left the reception and it didn't take long to spy the two Ring Ouzels messing about on the ploughed field. Views were distant and there was some heat haze so I moved on and concentrated on the seabirds. I felt a little uneasy by the number of people congregating at the watchpoints (it wasn't that bad tbh but I'm a bit soft) and upon heading back a Barn Owl was hunting the ploughed field giving some nice views as it tried to provide for the next generation. 

I tried to get better views of the Ouzels but the usual crowd were giving them no space and they spooked, flying east, behind the visitor centre. I managed to relocate them and watched over a cappuccino before they moved close to the car park. I again slipped round and watched from the gate, alone (I did tell the warden but he wasn't keen on getting folk crowded there). The birds started 50 metres away and moved closer and closer until they were within 20 metres. My hazy, blurry photos from across a field forgotten as I got my best ever views of this species. They continued to feed unabashed and I ran out of time. I'm pretty happy with the photos I got and am very grateful the camera was fixed!

Closer, closer, closer...

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Easy (Lam)Prey

A twitter post by two of my former lecturers and colleagues at the University of Hull, discussing watching Brook Lamprey Lampetra planeri spawning in the headwaters of the River Hull, reminded me that I too live near the headwaters of the River Hull and I too could see this. A couple of tactical messages later and I was armed with the requisite information and away I trundled.

A chilly but bright April evening saw me watching no fewer than seven of these oddities, frantically trying to pass their genes on over the gravel redds that are present in what is effectively a ditch. Anyway, I put together a video documenting this with dodgy footage included.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Nocmig 2021 - March Part 2: Pic N Mix

 March is an excellent month for variety, especially of migrating waterfowl on NocMig and so it proved this year. My experiments of live listening last year yielded fine numbers of ducks and this time out I got no fewer than 29 species including three nocmig firsts for the garden, Whooper Swan, Shoveler and Common Gull. Early arrivals included a Chiffchaff and a Little Ringed Plover

Lets start at the beginning, Week 1, and I recorded five out of seven nights. The 3rd was slow but a flock of Teal not long after setting up and an early Coot, the first of 16 in March, was good value. Gulls aren't regular here on NocMig although there are a pair of Herring Gulls that breed nearby. Two different birds passing were unusual though, constituting the first passage records for the garden with a third on 6th. Oystercatchers were first recorded on 4th and were recorded as migrants on 11 nights but it was evident towards the end of the month that the resident birds had returned with regular display so it was hard to tease out which records referred to these. Blackbird migration picked up with 17 birds across the month from the 4th-31st, up from five in January and February combined. Not huge numbers but movement nonetheless. The first record of Mallard on 5th March heralded the decamping from the Mere to the local ditches for some hanky panky and they have become a regular occurrence and will remain so well into the autumn. I'm sure I get some Mallard passage but making head nor tail of it is impossible. A single Chiffchaff flight call on 5th was a first NocMig record for me and heralded the almost immediate return of this species to the village with two or three territories now audible from the house. A Moorhen on 5th was the first of 19 recorded in March. March 6th held a Shelduck, the fourth garden record and third in a fortnight. Two Wigeon flocks were recorded on 7th and the first Redwing of the month, the first of 51 for the month and similar to Blackbird it was up from 11 records in January and February combined.

Week 2 was relatively unremarkable but Common Scoter passage commenced on 12th. I only recorded on two nights and my first Gadwall of the year on 12-13th was decent along with the first Curlew. A bit worrying is that there local birds I heard nightly last year dont seem to have returned although the second village pair, a bit further away are back. Week three took a while to get going with just the usuals (Redwing and Moorhen plus the resident corvids, owls and Mallards) plus a Grey Heron on 18th, the only record of the year so far, and a flock of Golden Plover on 19th which started a string of 11 records over the subsequent week. The final day of the week, the night of the 20-21st March was the first 'big' night of the year, with two flocks of Wigeon, four flocks of Teal (of 13 in the month), a flock of Common Scoter, three Moorhens, two Coots, two flocks of Oystercatchers, a flock of Curlew and two records each of Redwing and Blackbird. And to think this was just the warm up!

The final decade of the month was electric and whilst we have touched upon the Scoter in the previous post it was incredible for this species. 19 flocks of Common Scoter went over on 21st-22nd plus four Moorhens, five Coots, Oystercatchers, two flocks of Golden Plover, two flocks of Curlew, three Black-headed Gulls and my first NocMig Common Gull. A busy night! Scoters were replaced by my first garden Whooper Swans on 22-23rd when two herds flew over. A third group followed the next night. More of the commoner migrants on 22nd were supplemented by my first Little Ringed Plover of the year just after 8pm. The first Water Rail of the year flew over on 24th, one of three in the last few days of the month. I only missed a single night, 28-29th March in the final 13 nights and each night was brim full of interest. One of just two Song Thrush passed on 24th and on 24-25th there was another big movement of Scoter in addition to the first Greylag Geese of the year. There are a pair breeding about 1km from home and I think these must be the birds I have picked up on occasion since then. A minimum of two Shoveler went over the same night and these are my first NocMig record, and an odd sounding duck for sure. Oddly I have a late spring visual record from the garden and I have seen them in flight during the day down the road at Wansford so perhaps they are passing over silently more often? Needless to say each night had Golden Plovers and Oystercatchers and Redwing and Scoter(!) plus a selection of rallids. A Little Grebe flying over giving the rarer 'scream' call as opposed to the Whimbrel impersonation was the first of the year on 27th March. It was a species it took until May to pick up last year so perhaps isnt too common in early spring round here. I'm going to gloss over the last three nights of the month but they too were full of birds moving, just nothing new or in outstanding numbers. So there we have it, lockdown birding at its best and while I slept. It was exceptional and exceptional fun each day working through it.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Nocmig 2021 - March Part 1: It's all Scoter

March has been exceptional for Nocmig and until this latest coldsnap I had been recording lots of birds most nights. The big headline has been the sheer number of Common Scoter recorded. Last year I ordered my recorder off the back of the movement and got a few flocks but I don't have a comparison. I think my local geography might be really good for concentrating birds as I am literally at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds so birds will be funneled along the escarpment and from the top of the wolds, the coast at Barmston, which is 6 miles due east of here, is visible. Add in the passage of a main road and a railway both leading past the village towards the coast and it is well set up to receive bountiful birds which move west to east. 

In total 42 flocks and 881 calls were recorded between 12-31st March. I recorded on 21 nights so this may be incomplete (although most of the missed nights were early in the month). Generally birds reached me ~2-3 hours post sunset after birds had been heard at stations from Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire into the Pennines and onto Leeds and York. It is impossible at this stage to estimate how many birds are involved but hopefully analysis with nightvision will allow some estimates to be made. 

There were two nights of particularly heavy scoter passage, 21st and 24th March which had 19 flocks and 14 flocks respectively. Passage was particularly concentrated on 21st when all birds occurred within an 85 minute window (21:27 - 22:52) and 409 calls were recorded. This, at the time, represented the 10th highest count by number of calls in the world, according to data on Trektellen (I am aware there are higher nocmig counts on eBird but that data is not searchable). Just three days later, on 24th March a further 14 flocks and 340 calls were recorded but this was less concentrated, between 20:58 - 23:52. What does this mean? That the birds originated from different sources perhaps? Or conditions weren't as favourable so there was a staggered exit from Liverpool Bay? It is interesting to speculate and perhaps tagging data will reveal the answer in due course.

I got a few recordings but this is perhaps the best. I didn't get that many direct hits, where you can hear the steam train-like wing noise or the female calls. In part 2 I cover the other species recorded in an excellent month. 

Ornithological Idiocy

How birds and brains become mutually exclusive

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