Friday, April 3, 2020

The Dark Art Of Vismigging, part one - Incoming!

The first in a two-part series I wrote recently for Zeiss Birding about my experiences studying visible migration, this article looks at the phenomenon of the multitudes of migrants that arrive from over the North Sea from mainland Europe, Scandinavia and Russia every year - and the thrill of watching it happen. Click the link below and enjoy!

The Dark Art Of Vismigging, part one - Incoming!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

COTF Celebration Day 2020 - In Pictures

Get Shorty
Yesterday was kind of surreal, but ultimately incredibly joyful and inspiring. It was our Champions of the Flyway Celebration Day - an opportunity to come together (virtually), make the most of limitations, celebrate birds and our community, and raise more awareness and funds for the cause (see here for more). For me, this meant co-ordinating our (increasingly, magically) overloaded social media feeds and boosting the signal in whatever ways possible - which meant almost constant screen time and sore eyes and aching thumbs. But it also meant participation.

Roe Deer lack any concept of social distancing
How? Well, being very fortunate to have a local circuit of mixed habitats close to home (and inkeeping with the guidelines of exercising 'a normal amount'), I decided my solidarity birding would incorporate an often-trodden circuit strictly within two kilometres of my front door - a self-imposed restriction that would also make it more interesting.

Frolicking dolphins a few minutes from the front door? Don't mind if I do
I had a look at what might be a realistic species tally, and it seemed 50 was an achievable target; this despite the limitations not only of geography and habitats but also the lack of long-distance migrants, which are tantalisingly close and due to start arriving over the coming weeks... but on the plus side, the conditions (while chilly) were due to be pleasantly benign. And happily, they were, which made for near-ideal circumstances.

Gravity-defying, super-heroic Purple Sandpiper - the only one on the Brigg
Long story short, for a nippy day on the North Yorkshire coast at the end of March, it could hardly have gone better. It was a joy just to be out, enjoying birds - a pleasure I honestly don't take for granted anymore in the slightest - and the lack of human disturbance, physically and audibly, made for an unprecendently peaceful session. But the lack of people (the few I saw sensibly keeping more than the advised distance) also cast a melancholic air to places that would otherwise have been bustling; the beach, in particular, was almost empty.

A female Northern Wheatear, fresh from Africa, against the backdrop of a deserted Coble Landing. I can't tell you how happy this bird made me....
So, what about the birds? Well, the strike rate for species I deemed 'likely' was excellent, in fact pretty much 100%. Notable omissions were Bullfinch and Treecreeper, but the number of 'maybe's' - i.e., species I was in with a shout of, but that were far from bolt-on - way outweighed any minor losses, and included both Short-eared and Barn Owls (a non-owl day would not have been at all surprising), all the target raptors (with Peregrine and Common Buzzard doing the honours alongiside Sparrowhawks and Kestrels), tricky, rare farmland species including Grey Partridge and Yellowhammer, and bonus wildfowl in the shape of single Red-breasted Merganser and Brent Goose (more on the latter soon)....

... and she came much closer....
... and bird of the day for me - two Northern Wheatears which arrived, fresh-in from the North Sea, on a near-deserted Brigg just as I'd turned around to head home. They're my first of the year, and (but for a Sand Martin last week) are my first trans-Saharan migrants of the spring - I can honestly say I've never been so happy to see them in my life, and that's really saying something.

.... and was then joined by a bandit-masked male. Joy. 
On top of all that, I bumped into 12 Bottlenose Dolphins playing off the Brigg end, saw my first Common Pipistrelle bat of the year at dusk by the kitchen window, and added species #78 while brushing my teeth and preparing the hit the sack - a flock of vocal Common Scoters echoing in through the open bathrooom window. It's safe to say I'd never have heard them with the background noise of 'normal' circumstances; more small mercies to be grateful for.

The final tally of 78 - way more than anticipated
So, a memorable day of conflicting but ultimately uplifting emotions, and one I enjoyed every minute of. Am I grateful for what I have? Just a bit.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

From Cancellations To Celebrations

Two years ago, #COTF Race Day looked like this.... 
What a day! It's late evening here in North Yorkshire and we're still very much in the wave - no, storm surge - that is #COTF20 Celebration Day. I posted yesterday about the concept and the cause - see here - but today has seen a beautiful explosion of community participation, support and togetherness on a truly global level. To say we've - i.e. us, you, the wider #FlywayFamily - have made the most of these testing conditions would be putting it very mildly.

I'm fortunate to be part of the Champions team these days - what a blast to work with Jonathan, Dan, Yoav and the team - but it'll come as zero surprise to learn that this year has been, well, a unique challenge. As the consequences of the virus accelerated, so we adapted, and adapted again; just like everyone else. After many months of work and preparation - not to mention the physical event having to be cancelled, leaving many teams from around the world metaphorically high and dry, and our fundraising faltering just as we approached the critical (and most lucrative) last lap - we could have easily shrugged, put it down to a bad hand and walked away.

..... last year, something like this.....
But that wouldn't be very Champions at all, would it....? So we - and I pointedly include my fine friend and Canucks captain Stu Mackenzie in the we - cooked up a plan that we hoped would inspire a collective celebration of birds, migration, our community and the whole COTF ethos. In doing so we hoped to inspire a coming together in these isolated, distanced times, a mutual show of support across our flyway family, a meaningful and enjoyable distraction from the trials of the times, and in turn, more exposure (and hopefully brass) for the cause.

We've beavered away frantically, particularly over these last couple of weeks (and especially recent days) to try and create a groundswell that would hopefully turn a cancelled Race Day into a mass, global Celebration Day; long story short, it worked like a dream. The reaction has been incredible, and we're all a little awed and emotional at this point (if there were time to be at the moment, which there isn't - maybe tomorrow or Thursday!).

... today, like this....
Better still - the donations are still rolling in, and we've smashed our $40,000 target to help reverse the dire fortunes of Steppe Eagles by funding Birdlife projects on the ground. Amazing.

You can check out the (overloaded!) #COTF20 Twitter and Facebook feeds here and here
Read all about the cause here
And if you're feeling generous, you can make a donation, however small, here.

... and this. Could be worse, I know. 


Monday, March 30, 2020

Champions of the Flyway - Celebration Day 2020

Well, we've all come a long way in the last few weeks, but many things – many wonderful things - carry on regardless. One, thank the gods, is bird migration - and birds in general - and despite increasing and necessary restrictions, we're still fortunate to enjoy them in whatever way we can.

Another is Champions of the Flyway. For those of you who aren't familiar with COTF, it's a 24-hour bird race in the Negev Desert, at the end of March every year, that sees teams descend from across the globe; but it's much more than just a sleep-deprived, entertaining Wacky Races-style birding romp – it's the climax of several months campaigning and fundraising to help save migratory birds from needless and often illegal persecution and death.

Every year, Birdlife International chooses a recipient partner with a suitable project on the ground, and Champions rallies to their aid, raising awareness and funds (wonderfully, over half a million dollars thus far). It's an incredible concept involving incredible people and an incredible community which is so much more than the sum of its parts, and you can read more about it here

This year's physical race is off , of course, but we're not letting that stop us celebrating Race Day, and all the hard work and effort put in by the #FlywayFamily across the world – and so this year's race day becomes Celebration Day. We – that's me, you, us, anyone who wants to join in – are birding in solidarity with the cause tomorrow (March 31st), in whatever way possible: that can be for as long or short as required, from a window, garden, rooftop, racing against friends or yourself for a species count – the rules are, there are no rules....

Well, apart from one request – that we all tell the world about what we're doing via social media, and signpost towards Champions and its ethos of saving the migratory birds that are returning to our shores as we speak. To date, and despite all the chaos and cancellations, our Flyway Family for this year's Saving Steppe Eagles campaign have, incredibly, raised over $40,000. Inspirational stuff indeed.

I've decided to go 'circuit birding', strictly within 2 km of my front door, and I'm targeting 50 species.... I've no idea if I'll make it or not, but I'll have fun trying, and I'll keep you updated as it happens on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, as well as blogging about it after the fact. Wish me luck, or bettter still, join me, wherever you are!

So you're very welcome to take part, and celebrate the birds, our conservation efforts, and how lucky we are to still have what we have. Look out for updates from across the globe on our #COTF20 Twitter here and Facebook here, and don't forget to include #COTF20 in your tweets and tag our COTF Facebook page in FB posts.

And if you want to go a step further and encourage donations, we are still gratefully receiving them here - - every penny goes to saving these majestic, but catastrophically declining birds of prey on their breeding grounds in the Central Asian Steppes.

Stay safe, stay positive and enjoy the birds - GO CHAMPIONS!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Birding for The Clampdown #5 - Small Mercies

So how is everyone? Supporting each other and ready for the long haul? It can be hard to find the positives, but as I'm sure we're all finding out, there are plenty. Connecting with friends and family as much as possible (more than ever in many cases) has been a real pleasure this week, as has the increasingly valauble contact with nature through daily local sessions.

The Common Toad (top photo) was one of many I've seen on my southern circuit, which includes a couple of ponds (ornamental and semi-natural), also hosting many Common Frogs, Smooth Newts and Great Crested Newts; on yesterday's walk, I saw more amphibians than humans.

Goldcrests (above) are evident in many spots locally at the minute, with migrants filtering through and birds setting up breeding territories. They're always a joy, even more so when delivering their tinkling, silvery song.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Birding for The Clampdown #4 - 27th March

Reed Bunting 
A quick one today, from a morning walk along the seafront, via the Glen, Muston Sands and the golf course and pond under sunny skies with a chilly NE breeze. Eerily quiet, but for birdsong, the sea, a single airplane and trains, all of which seemed to be empty as they sped by.

Chiffchaff in song
Plenty of wildlife action however, with lots of breeding activity and territorial skirmishes; highlights included another two White Wagtails and five Chiffys singing in the general area.

Rebel Tufted Duck
White Wagtail

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Birding For The Clampdown #3 - 26th March

The view from my VP at Muston Sands this morning
Another sunny morning and another opportunity seized to enjoy the expansive, sky-, sea- and landscapes of my chosen visible migration vantage point of Muston Sands.

The most numerous species on the move - Chaffinch - pictured here in situ
Still, crisp, clear, cool and bright this morning as high pressure dominiates and vismig all but grinds to a halt. That said, the clue is in the name, and it doesn't mean migration stops per se; indeed the majority of activity this morning was way up in the blue, with for example Chaffinches heading south (42 in total) barely visible to the naked eye, if at all.

A local Peregrine enjoying the conditions. A young male headed high and north, indicating a bird on the move among the many local raptors in the skies this morning. 
Raptors consisted of lots of 'locals' up and enjoying the excellent hunting conditions - Sparrowhawks, Buzzards and Kestrels everywhere - as well as some local Peregrine action; aside from the local pair, a young male flew high and north, lost to view way over towards Scarborough, which may well have been a bird on the move.

Siskins bounding south
As with pretty much everything related to the government's bungled virus interventions (or lack of), there's widespread confusion as to what is allowed regarding daily 'exercise', and specifically, if e.g. driving to a place of exercise is allowed. Yesterday it was a poorly qualified yes, today, we hear North Yorkshire Police are taking matters into their own hands and setting up check-points to prevent non-essential journeys (which seems sensible). Either way, for the moment I'm fortunate to be able to walk to my chosen place of solitude; hence making the most of it, and hence as many posts here as I can muster until such a time as regulations are tightened further.

Starlings are still on the move

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Birding for The Clampdown #2 - 25th March

White Wagtail - an uncommon migrant
Day two of the (kind-of) lockdown, and more silver linings. Because of restrictions on local caravan sites I'm unable to access both of my go-to visible migration watch-points at Reighton Sands and Gristhorpe Bay respectively, so this morning I meandered south the much closer distance to my original watch-point of Muston Sands, on the clifftop just south of Filey town and only 15 minutes walk from the house.

White Wagtail
I'll go into the minutiae of this vantage point another time soon (plemty of opportunity, that's for sure); for now, a few photos from what was a hugely enjoyable session this morning, with light SSW winds and under blue skies and increasingly warm sunshine.

Three of 133 Chaffinches heading south
With passerine vismig usually at its most intense in the hours immediately after dawn, arriving at 0845 was very much being late to the party in that respect; but a) there are various species which continue moving much later, and b) it's not all about the little stuff by any means - benign conditions and developing thermals as the morning wears on often means bigger, broad-winged species on the move.

... and one high overhead (heavily cropped)
But I digress. Knowing that I'd missed the early window this morning, I didn't expect much to be on the move, but it was surprisingly productive - and highlights included my (and the area's) first Sand Martin of the year, a Corn Bunting south, three White Wagtails (one on the golf course, two south) among a dozen Pied, almost a hundred Meadow Pipits, five Chiffchaffs (including one stepping-stone migrating along the clifftop) and no fewer than 133 Chaffinches.

Sand Martin or smudge on your screen? 
The latter, as with most of this morning finches, were moving south, in everything from singles to groups of 20, often high and over a broad front, from over the beach on eastern side to well inland on the west.

One of at least 17 Common Buzzards viewable from Muston Sands this morning, It's always tricky working out which ones are on the move and which are local breeders, but even accounting for all the latter being in play (8, max 10), at least eight were 'moving today. 
So, another good morning of quality birding, with the added bonus of plenty of butterfly action, including Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Peacocks. Many a reason to be cheerful.

Peacock on the clifftop
White Wagtail

Dedicated to the legend Bill Thompson III, who moved on a year ago today. Fly free, BT3!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Birding For The Clampdown #1 - Silver Linings

Say hello to a Wren on the wall outside the study a few minutes ago. Say hello to plenty of dodgy through-double-glazing photos, too.... 
Silver linings - they're everywhere if you look hard enough, and many are right in front of us. We should be in the desert right now, surrounded by our #FlywayFamily and in the thick of the kaleidoscopic riot that is spring bird migration hitting its peak in southern Israel; but 'should' sounds redundant and entitled in these fast-changing days, and it's a good time to celebrate what we have, not what we wish we had.

One of many Meadow Pipits enjoying the decrease in disturbance on Carr Naze this morning
Here in the UK we woke up this morning to the (near) lockdown - too little too late, but that's for another time - and the restrictions require some creativity to make the most of nature while playing by the rules. Under current regulations I can still go out birding locally, as my one-a-day 'exercise allowance', and I count my blessings I live in a place with access to beautiful and life-affirming country/seaside close to my doorstep.

The view from Carr Naze this morning (looking towards Scarborough)
I went out for a walk this morning and, in stark contrast to the weekend (which was, shockingly, like a Bank Holiday here in Filey), my circuit was almost deserted - heartening, and I hope a sign of difficult truths finally hitting home. Not to be too misanthropic but being able to hear the birds and the sea, unpolluted by engines, dogs, aircraft and human voices, was an unfamiliar joy, and the birds were noticeably more settled.

The study, aka the Obs, aka Mission Control, aka as-good-as-it-gets-before-too-long
But many - possibly all in a future worst case scenerio - of my nature kicks will be coming from my study window over the coming weeks. Unfortunately we don't have the luxury of a garden, and the terrain is mostly bricks, mortar, concrete and tarmac. But - and it's all about the buts - there's a big piece of sky to scan, and the potential for flyovers will be a much-needed incentive over the coming weeks; I've had some good stuff over the last few years as it happens, but let's save that for when my material is even thinner, eh?

My piece of sky, to be scanned many thousands of times in the near future
Challenging times and the limitations that come with them can provide genuinely valuable, refreshing new perspectives, and I've never taken nature and my enjoyment of it less for granted than I do now. Anyone who's dipped into these pages over the last decade has probably gathered how deep my love of birds and wildlife runs, but I'm as guilty as anyone of overlooking the superficially commonplace, the familiar and the myriad wonders that are right in front of me.

A Goldcrest from a few hundred metres into my 'exercise' this morning
So this will, in all likelhood, be the beginning of that shift in perspective, and a rolling journal of my (re)discovery of the simple pleasures and dramas unfolding from an ordinary window, in an ordinary street, in an ordinary northen English town. There'll hopefully be some excepts from my 'exercise' birding within striking distance of the house too, but for how long, we'll see. Either way, silver linings abound; hopefully for you too.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Reighton Sands, 16th & 19th March 2020

Go fly one
In these strange and anchorless times, being able to head out and enjoy birds and nature so close at hand has never felt quite such a privilege as it does at the moment. Hence, I'm making the most of it, and with migration underway, I've re-opened my vismig account at my favoured spot at Reighton Sands, where the views are so beautiful, the birds don't always have to put on the ritz.

High-flying Reed Bunting
These first couple of sessions haven't set the world on fire regarding quantity (nor would i expect them to at this point in the season), but there's been a decent trickle of common passerines, and, happily, several early highlights to brighten up the notebook:

The Barn Owls have played ball every morning by my vantage point
The first of which was a Hooded Crow heading north within a surge of Corvids (yes, with an R...) a couple of days ago on the early morning of the 16th, which was followed by a couple of stand-outs this morning; firstly, a calling Woodlark (less than annual locally) coasting at head height, happily picked up by Will at the Gap a while later, and secondly, a rather more expected but still locally scarce Red Kite, which coasted from at least as far away as Long Nab and followed the ridge south-east towards Buckton (see final pic).

I'll be out vismigging as often as conditions - external and otherwise - allow, so watch this space for more as the spring unfolds.