Friday, March 6, 2015

Autumn 2014 in Filey, part II

From Fea's Petrel to White-billed Diver via plenty of other highlights.... click the link:

Birdguides - Autumn 2014 in Filey, part II

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Good Year for the Rosies: January & February

Part one of the year-list challenge to raise money for Coquet Island's Roseate Terns (see here for details)

"Year-listing, eh? Hahahaha"
Firstly, a disclaimer. As anyone good enough to read my ramblings here and elsewhere may have noticed, I prefer to accentuate the positives of patch birding, and rarely (if ever) dwell on the negatives; we all have a unique catalogue of hard-luck stories unavoidably accumulated over time, but I'm a great believer in that karmic cliche of it all balancing out in the long run, and of letting the less welcome memories fade away undocumented.

This time round, however, rather than keeping on the sunny side, I'm breaking the habit; failures as well as successes, frustration as well as satisfaction, all in the name of a good story – a first-hand, un-airbrushed perspective on the trials that this year-listing thing involves, and with it the opportunity for readers to sigh empathetically or snigger mockingly as fortunes ebb and flow. Consider it a kind of emotional blackmail – turning pity into pounds, I'm open for donations 24/7....

Mute Swans returning to the Dams
Thus, writing up the year as it unfolds from the cold, hard, arbitrary angle of the year-list will at least be a novel exercise, especially during periods where the gods appear committed to a targeted malevolence – just the case, as it happens, during much of the year so far. It's been a somewhat inauspicious beginning, shall we say, with plenty of effort reaping scant rewards and a series of frustrating near-misses rubbing in the salt for good measure (feel free to reach for the cheque book at any point, by the way).

With the key migration seasons still a long way away and most of our winter bird populations well settled, the first two months of the year were always going to be about the bonus birds – those hard-to-get long-shots that, if you're lucky, put in special appearances after severe weather, or just happen to materialise by chance.

"Birds? You should've done mammals, mate. Here, have a toke on this"
Geese, gulls and grebes were naturally the main targets, with the rarer possibilities of each most often occurring in the winter months. In many early winter seasons – particularly quiet, mild ones – few such oddities show up on the radar, but that's just how it goes sometimes; a whole host of them have appeared this year, however, and against the odds, almost all have somehow so far conspired to avoid the year-list. (flat donations or a chosen rate per species - I'm easy either way...)

First up were a group of five Tundra Bean Geese (less than annual, every few years at best) that my bird race team had in the Top Fields on 4th Jan. I say my bird race team – I'd have been there if not sat on a train near Doncaster on the way back from a trip, so no complaints there. Not the case a week later though, when, in the spirit of being in it to win it, instead of staying indoors on a distinctly unpromising morning I headed for the Brigg; and instead of heading for the Brigg end, I noticed Fulmars were moving, and so decided to dutifully tally them from within the (mobile signal-proof) hide.

Curlew against the Coble Landing
Finally stepping out of the hide several hours later, a barrage of calls and texts describing how (presumably the same) five had drifted along the edge of the bay, over the town and then the Brigg before finally heading north agonisingly revealed that if I'd have stayed home, I could have walked out of the door and leisurely twitched them from the road outside my house; alternatively, if I'd walked to end of the Brigg first (as I usually do), I'd have seen them easily and received all the messages in time. The only place I could possibly miss them would be in the hide, with the doors closed, counting bloody Fulmars. (How many Beans make five? None).

Oystercatchers in the bay
Next up, news of a group of seven White-fronted Geese (again less than annual) feeding by the sports club off Scarborough Road, tantalisingly just obscured from my field of view from where I sat patiently awaiting a sign of life at the Dams. It was almost dusk, but only a five to ten minute ride at most should get me there comfortably - redemption time, surely. This, however, was the only day in the last year or more the bike was out of action, and a half-hour walk would be pushing it, so I called comrade Nick on the off chance of a ride; an affirmative, and it was game on. Despite best efforts, however, the intervening minutes ticked by like hours, and by the time we got there, we'd somehow missed them by a hair's breadth.

Knot in the bay corner
At the end of January I got word of a Waxwing on the local council estate, not five minutes away; unless there's an influx later in the year, likely my best chance. Inevitably it appeared on the one weekend we'd arranged to be out of town, but still there was hope – it'd returned the next morning and I was due back that afternoon. Four unsuccessful attempts later, and loitering suspiciously around the entrance to the local Primary School finally began to seem like the terrible idea it clearly was in the first place.

Diving Shag off the Brigg - colour-ringed on the Isle of May, Scotland as a chick last summer
The losing streak continued in earnest with a further succession of near-misses, many of which were at sea (despite putting in more hours sea-watching that I care to remember). Think four days on the trot with nothing and then a morning off in order to narrowly miss a Black Guillemot (less than annual and unlikely to occur again this year), and then five essentially blank mornings the next week with Glaucous Gulls waiting to plod by on the other two (a tricky one to pull back, as illustrated by my success rate of one in three years). On mornings when I opted for more unproductive Dams stake-outs, meanwhile, Red-necked (should still get) and Slavonian (lucky to get another chance) Grebes cunningly sneaked by. Safe to say, a certain theme seemed to have developed by this point.

Wren on the Brigg
All of which is, at least, inspiring an increasingly philosophical approach. At the beginning of the year my time was my own and I was going hell for leather either trying (and failing) to increase my chances of finding the long shots, or chasing others that ultimately got away; now, however, I'm in the midst of studying, which means I'll be operating at a much-reduced capacity from here onwards. So like it or not, a far more measured attitude is needed, and the roll-call of near-misses described above has at least proved a timely shot across the bows for future trials and tribulations.

Scaup (fourth from left) - a minor victory....
And there were year-list victories too, of course. Many an almost birdless vigil at the Dams did eventually produce a result in the shape of a particularly shy, scruffy-looking Scaup just before dusk on a freezing January evening (very hard to catch up with locally), particularly vindicating given what hard work it was; a cracking drake Surf Scoter (a great find by local birder Colin W) off the Brigg, meanwhile, had the good grace to hang around long enough to make it onto the list (and for several days afterwards). So, small mercies, and while the majority of those valuable cold-season bonus balls have somehow slipped through the net, a good hand is overdue, and it can only get better from here......

Hits: Scaup, Surf Scoter
Misses: Nurse, the screens
Total species (up to end of Feb): 98
Target: 180

For details of how to pledge your support, please go here

"Jesus, cheer up - there's ten months to go yet"

Monday, February 23, 2015

Latest article on Birdguides

Just published by Birdguides - part one of my look back over an entertaining autumn season here at Filey:

Postcards from the edge - Autumn 2014 in Filey, Part I

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Provence, December 2014

Time flies eh? Over Christmas and New Year the Mrs and I spent a lovely week with our dear friends the Fontenoys at their place in Caumont-sur-Durance, a little village in the Provencal countryside. For the most part, we were happily holed up in front of the fire as the Mistral howled, but there were still plenty of occasions when we did venture outside, and there were always birds to enjoy.

Default species around the garden and village included many Black Redstarts (above and below), Chiffchaffs and Serins, regular Firecrests and (to a lesser extent) Goldcrests, small numbers of Cirl Buntings, and Crested Tits happily put in an appearance just outside the front door.

Blackcaps were, as always, present in almost plague proportions, and Sardinian Warblers (above and below) were pleasingly hard to avoid (unless you're stuck to a gravestone of course - no turning the other cheek there, eh JC?). Redwings were well scattered where berries could be found (always seems strange seeing them so far south) alongside numerous Song Thrushes and Blackbirds.

Excursions to almost deserted, ridiculously picturesque villages and chateaux allowed close-up views of various species including Hawfinches (below - years since I've seen them and a real pleasure to watch), but it was the one specific mission that really made the trip from a birding perspective. Supremely enigmatic and uniquely adapted to often inaccessible rock faces, Wallcreeper is a bird I've always wanted to see, and there are several known wintering sites in south-east France - a reliable one of which was tantalisingly close (geographically at any rate), at the popular destination of Les Baux; logisitically, however, it soon became nigh-on impossible, and it looked like another opportunity was passing by.

But there was a Plan B, which, while my expectations were realistically low, had to be worth a try. Only a half-hour's drive away, the local beauty spot of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse was well known to us from numerous previous visits, and online research revealed a vague reference to a distant Wallcreeper there (about a decade ago) - hardly inspiring but better than nothing - and its imposing and dizzyingly precipitous cliffs and outcrops looked instinctively promising. Fast forward to pre-dawn drive out there (thanks for the ride Maryna ;-), a scramble up part of the rocky slopes, and a bone-chillingly freezing stake-out facing the cliffs in blissfully deserted surrounds.

Staring at the same sensorially overwhelming wall of rock is oddly hypnotic (particularly when your extremities long since became uncomfortably numb), and aside from the distraction of the resident Jackdaws, it seemed destined to stay that way - until a cracking male Blue Rock Thrush (above) snapped me out of it and put on a fine show, followed a gang of Crag Martins leaving a roost and soon spiriting away. Well worth it anyway, then, but soon after a movement, then a flash of scarlet, and then the unmistakable shape of a Wallcreeper doing its oddly moth-like feeding flutter up the cliff-face. Great views in flight and in Spiderman-mode through binoculars were more than enough, fantastically followed a while later by a second bird on another section of rock. An unforgettable result, made all the sweeter by having to work for it.

No Rock Buntings though - until this one appeared in next door's garden!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Blah blah blah

Back in September, the lovely Mr Tom Mckinney (of BBC Radio 3 and very clever geetar skills amongst other things) and I did an interview at the Spurn Migration Festival. Ostensibly about Filey Bird Observatory and Yorkshire Coast Nature, we ended up talking crap for some considerable time, but here's a ten minute edit (with thanks to Dave Tucker, Spurn Bird Observatory and the Migfest team).

Yorkshire Coast Nature- Mark Pearson from dave tucker on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Good Year for the Rosies

Year-listing in Filey for Coquet island's Roseate Terns

After enjoying a fantastic range of birdlife since arriving in Filey a couple of years ago, I've decided to go for a 'big year' in 2015 – that is, actively seeking as many different species in the area as I can in a twelve month period - to raise money for a special conservation cause.

Roseate Terns migrate back from the African coast every spring to breed on the tiny Coquet Island off the Northumbrian coast – the only UK breeding colony, with just 60-80 pairs – making Rosies our rarest and most threatened breeding seabird. The RSPB provide specially designed nest-boxes and 24-hour protection for this fragile colony, as well as managing the habitat and investing in research to help these amazing birds.

On behalf of Filey Bird Observatory, I'd like to help their cause by raising enough money to sponsor a pair (for five years), and maybe even sponsor two pairs if I can get enough support...

I'm hoping that as many generous folk as possible will sponsor me in 2015 as I attempt to clock up as many bird species in our recording area as I can between January and December. It'll be a challenge (especially as I'll also be attempting a degree during the year!), but I'm aiming for between 160 and 180 species. If you'd like to sponsor me, you can do so either per species (10p per species about £18, 20p per species about £36 and so on) or with a flat donation of your choice.

During the year I'll be posting updates on my progress both here and via the Observatory website ( 100% of all sponsorship money will go directly to sponsoring Coquet's Roseate Terns, and next year I'll be posting regular updates on the birds we've successfully sponsored on the island. Thanks in advance, and wish me luck!

You can make your pledge by contacting me at mpearson(at)

A Roseate Tern in Filey bay - likely a Coquet bird on the way back to Africa....

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sylvias & Sparrows - Fuerte #15

.... i.e., Spectacled Warblers, Sardinian Warblers and Spanish Sparrows, all three of which were easy to connect with in the right habitats on the island.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Houbara Bustards - Fuerte #14

One of the star attractions of the island, Fuerte's Houbara Bustards were close to (if not at) the top of our hit-list in the run-up to our visit, and we were hopeful of connecting at their favoured locations. From research and valuable feedback, we knew where to look and where we were most likely to get the kind of views (and photos) we were hoping for; we also knew, however, that they were by no means as plentiful, or as easy to pin down, as might be expected.

It took some effort (and they were all the better for it), but we found them in two areas - on the semi-desert plains near Costa Calma (in the far south) and in the same habitat just west of Cotillo, in the north. At the former location we had great views of what was presumably the same bird on several occasions, and while we happy with our lot, we were all still hoping for the kind of grand-standing display we'd cooed over on a minority of trip reports before arriving.

So we set off well before dawn to make it up to the Cotillo Plain hopefully before disturbance, and the heat and over-saturated light of the day, perhaps became issues. After wonderful experiences with several small groups of Cream-coloured Coursers and various other decent birds, it wasn't too long before I picked up a bustard, motionless, within metres of the car.... a gentle halt, a flurry of camera shutters and hushed expletives later, and we'd had the kind of views we'd been praying for. But it soon got even better.

Throwing his head back and turning his front-end into something like a black and white pom-pom, this amazingly accommodating male then proceeded to run alongside the track in random directions, apparently displaying at and/or threatening our (white) car in undeniably comedy fashion. After he'd stopped - complete with head and plumes erect - we inched closer along the track, and it wasn't long before the ritual began again, much to amusement of all of us. It was hard to leave him, but we eventually did, after thanking him for what was unarguably the birding experience of the trip.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Barbary Ground Squirrels - Fuerte #13

Opportunistic, photogenic and characterful, Barbary Ground Squirrels were hardly difficult to find, with the rustle of a food wrapper often enough to demand their close attentions in certain places.