Monday, June 1, 2020

Nocmig Update - May 2020

Well, that's month #2 done and dusted of this addictive new aspect of the local birding experience, and what a fascinating month it's been. I managed to record nocturnal migration (#nocmig) over the house every night, using a hand-held sound recorder jammed into the gap of my study window, pointing out into the alley (see here for an overview of my, er, 'technique' and circumstances). Invariably, the virtual tape rolls from roughly 45 minutes beyond dusk until whenever I get up to turn it off (although analysing the spectrogram beyond the beginning of the dawn chorus is impractical), amounting to about six hours of material every night.

To my amazement, not one drew a blank, and that's discounting all local breeders, 'stationary' species and anything likely to still be active in the area beyond dusk, and including species only definitively on the move overhead in the night-time proper - and even on nights with strong winds, rain, particularly deafening and near-continuous gull noise and other limiting factors. Overall, the weather was actually pretty kind, and there were no technical issues (beyond the general limitations of my set-up) to stifle the hand-rubbing expectation of spectrogram reviewing the following day....

As with diurnal birding and migration, the steady changes of the spring season were evident as the month wore on, and recent nights stand in stark contrast to those first days in April and beyond regarding species composition (those ubiquitous Redwing shreeps sure seem like a long time ago now).

A full April summary can be found here, but in brief, ducks were relatively regular (six species, including regular Gadwall, a Common Pochard, and a lot of Common Scoters), rails likewise (especially Coot and Moorhen), nine shorebird species featured (ranging from numerous Oystercatchers to singles of Grey Plover and Greenshank, and plenty of Common Sands, Whimbrel and the like), a few gulls and corvids were on the move, and intriguingly, there was plenty of passerine action beyond the welcome-but-expected Redwings and odd Fieldfares. These included Meadow Pipit, Robin, alba Wagtail, a couple still to be ID'ed and not one but two Blackcaps - at the time, something of a revelation, and a total surprise...

Picking up any nocturnal migrants is a thrill, but picking up a warbler 'migration-singing' as it skirts the chimney pots of urban Filey in the dead of night is something else - as previously described, it's an entirely habitat-free, bricks-and-mortar-only location with no gardens, surrounded by three- and four-storey terraced housing on all sides. In that respect, those humble Blackcaps were indeed revelatory, and concrete (pun-intended) proof that these were no stop-and-sing or stationary birds - they were 100% flyover migrants.

Which is one of the ways May upped the ante and raised the bar even higher. In the first week of month in particular, other insectivorous passerines began to register, including Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail, Robin and (fantastically) two Lesser Whitethroats - amazing and fascinating in equal measure, and absolutely beyond any expectations I had when I first dipped my toe into nocmig eight weeks ago.

But it wasn't just the passerines that came to the fore. April's tally of nine shorebird (wader) species steadily became thirteen over the course of the month, with new additions including Arctic breeders such as Sanderling, Knot and Turnstone (often with trickier calls to sift out from the gull cacophony).

Fantastically, two Tern species have migrated over the house, including a flock of noisy Sandwich Terns the night before last, and at least one Arctic Tern screeching through the rain in the early hours of the 10th - the same night when, even more excitingly, a Quail quip-quip-quiped over the rooftops... Two very different, iconic migrants, and two proper long-distance travellers, innocuously migrating over our urban house on the same stormy spring night. Magical.

Wildfowl expectedly tailed off, but odd small Scoter flocks continued until mid-month, and after a dip around the same time, Grey Herons and rails (particularly Moorhens) have had a renaissance over the last week (perhaps as ephemeral water bodies dry out). Arguably the most extraordinary record, however, (presumably) wasn't a migrant at all, but a Barn Owl defying expectations and navigating over the least hospitable part of town on 17th...

Looking through the spectrograms becomes easier with practice, although as any Nocmigger will tell you, it's two steps forward, one step back, and there's so much to learn, and also plenty that goes unresolved; satisfying and disconcerting in equal measures, however, is how many calls and species I've found by listening back to random chunks of a night's recording, while working at the computer, the following day.

Of the many visually-concealed jewels buried in the myriad gull signatures and other unwanted pollutants, a second Quail (on 23rd) was perhaps the pick, but various waders were also uncovered by chance this way. Not practical on a regular basis, but very productive when possible .....

So, as expected, activity is indeed steadily reducing as the spring migration window closes, and recent nights have been quiet (still including surprises, like the flock of Sandwich Terns for instance); it may be that this week heralds a break in proceedings, to be resumed in a few weeks when shorebirds begin moving again (autumn, finally!).... if so, well, it's fair to say my opening season of nocmig here in downtown Filey has, to put it mildly, been an absolute blast.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Flamborough Spring Wanderings

From demure.... 'majestic'
These unique circumstances that we're all dealing with have naturally impacted pretty much everyone's spring birding routines, but fortunately for me, the adjustments have been pretty minor at worst: less time and opportunity to spread out along the coast (as I've enjoyed in recent years), a forced hand re: where to camp out for visible migration, and plenty more reliance on shank's pony in order to reach my favoured spots. That many are within walking distance, and that these are the only 'sacrifices' I've had to make, kind of put any inconvenience into perspective, of course....

Common Buzzard arriving in off the sea and past the old lighthouse
Local Barn Owl on the hunt just after dawn on the outer head
Breeding Stonechat (female)
Singing Common Whitethroat - good densities in suitable habitat
Just like old times, then - with the vast majority of my birding this spring limited to the immediate area here in Filey, incorporating the same pros and cons of those days when my birding mentality was obsessively and stubbornly patch-or-die. Of that, I'll follow up with a post in a day or two; but thankfully there have also been limited opportunities to enjoy Flamborough, too.

One of south Landing's Tawnies

One of the main reasons for this being the Breeding Bird Surveys I'm conducting across the headland this spring, on behalf of Wold Ecology. Over the course of them I've bumped into plenty of bonus collateral, as is often the case at Flamborough; in addition to a good cast of migrants, from warblers to Hobbys, the first visits in early April provided Firecrest and Grasshopper Warbler, the second a very smart Channel-type Yellow Wagtail (followed soon after by a swift diversion for a certain shrike), and the third - well, they're coming up next week, so fingers crossed...

Worth the diversion.... Brown Shrike

(with Bridlington Harbour in the background)
Additionally, with both my folks still living there, as well as the seabird colony a couple of minutes away, dropping in on them all is a necessary pleasure. So while it may've been a much-reduced service, I've still managed to get my Flamborough fix this spring, so things can't be all bad.

Kittiwake collecting nesting material from a local pond

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Nocmig update - April 2020

Grey Plover - a single bird  'peeyoowee'd over on the night of the 25th
A little late, perhaps, but here's a summary of my nocturnal migration recording adventures for the month of April 2020 - my first month, and my first primitive attempts, at this exciting and addictive new string to the birding bow.

Little Ringed Plover - a regular and vocal guest on the spectrograms
I've had lots of queries re: how it's done and with what gear, etc., and - with the caveat that in respect of nocmigging I'm very much a beginner - here's a quick recap. Regarding gear, I use an Olympus LS-11 digital sound recorder, which I bought some years ago for recording calls and songs in the field; it's discontinued I believe, and there are various newer and better similar hand-held devices, but it does the job just fine for now at least.

Greenshank - a single bird was recorded on the last night of the month
Others use an array of different set-ups, depending on budget and circumstances, with the standard method involving an external mic (often with a parabolic reflector, or DIY equivalent) set up in a garden. I have none of these, and still get what are still (to me at least) surprisingly productive results....

Where the magic happens.... by jamming a little hand-held sound recorder into the crack of the window just left of the defunct satellite dish.... 
....out into the alley and up into the ether
The playback (or, more accurately, the look-and-playback) process is pretty straightforward, and involves uploading the recording from a memory card onto the laptop, which is then opened via a (free) software program called Audacity. I could bang on about it more here but it's much better explained, all in one place, on the Nocmig website here.

Gadwall have featured surprisingly regularly on my nocmig recordings - which have tied in well with daytime records locally
As mentioned in a recent post on the subject, the lack of a garden - and the fact we live in a 100% urban setting in middle of Filey (surrounded by bricks, mortar and concrete in all directions) with a very limited sliver of sky to 'capture' any calls - effectively killed off any enthusiasm for previous attempts; it just didn't seem worth it, especially with lots of street noise and - and this is hard to do justice to - the cacophony of satanic howls and screams that comes from living in the middle of a very loud Herring Gull colony.....

Common Scoters - stars of the show so far
But after a beautiful chance encounter with a low flying flock of beeping Common Scoters while brushing my teeth late night on 31st March (see here) and the potential they illustrated (especially in lockdown circumstances), I decided it was time to give it a whirl; after all, what was there to lose? I'm happy to say that, thus far, it's just got more exciting and addictive as the weeks have worn on; extraordinarily, I'm yet to have a blank night - despite all the limitations, the gulls effectively wiping out 60-70% of airtime most nights, and the vaguaries of conditions....

So, what have I picked up? For April alone (not including these first nine nights of May, which have been really productive - more to follow), a relative treasure trove of avian wonders winging their way over the chimneys, restless gulls and sleeping humans of midtown Filey. By entering my counts on Trektellen - a great data-storing website that I've been using for more than a decade - not only do the counts contribute to the bigger picture and a wider understanding, but the site does the stats for you, and spits out all manner of graphs and charts to placate even the most needy of nerds.

Here's the totals in simple form, and looking at them in species order, there's lots of surprises. Six duck species (and likely one or two more - especially Tufted Duck - if wingbeats could be seperated), including regular Gadwall, a Common Pochard and best of all, of course, shedloads of Common Scoters... rails (Coot, Moorhen and Water Rail), while the most expected of nocmig species, are still great to register, if only to imagine their ungainly forms and dangling legs up just above the rooftops...

Nine shorebird (wader) species is a great return, with the stand-outs so far probably being Grey Plover and Greenshank, but the regularity of Whimbrel, Little Ringed Plover and (especially) Common Sandpiper, as well as Curlew, Dunlin and Redshank, is fascinating. Gulls (shudder) have at least included a Great Black-back, which flew over and instantly silenced the entire Herring Gull colony (hmm, a future ploy...?), and night-migrating Black-headeds, while both Jackdaw and Carrion Crow have also registered as flyovers in the dead of night.

A contintental Song Thrush, freshly arrived on the nearby clifftop in autumn. Who knows, one of those recorded over my house this April could be this bird returning to the continent..... 
Without a doubt the most surprising and fascinating aspect so far, however, has been the variety of passerines. Beyond thrushes, I didn't expect any, to be honest; and the lack of any available habitat (and the red flag of gulls) seemed like extra deterrents to any brave songbird, which would surely body-swerve the concrete jungle and wailing sirens in favour of a safer route nearby. But, I'm very happy to say, I was wrong....

Meadow Pipits are diurnal migrants - at least, most of the time....
I'm keeping my discipline here and avoiding writing about the brilliant surprises of May (although you can access them on Trektellen here of course), but April started the ball rolling and it hasn't stopped yet. Thrushes were indeed the most expected, and Redwing was a regular tsssiipping pleasure, clocking in on the majority of nights. Blackbird and Fieldfare also figured, as did plenty of Song Thrushes exiting the UK for the continent (but no Ring Ouzel as yet, night or day this spring - looks like autumn then!).

A migrating Robin, two nocturnal Meadow Pipits and an Alba Wagtail were all unexpected bonuses, but perhaps the most surprising few seconds of all to register on the spectrogram contained the night-flight migration song of a Blackcap. At the time, this was the first warbler I'd recorded skimming the chimney pots and after posting the spectrovid on Twitter, a barrage of replies along the lines of 'I just had that too' and 'of course, Blackcap!' etc. was a happy testament to both the fledgling nocmig community and social media.

Just a Blackcap....
Just a Blackcap, I know; but a Blackcap that fluted out a little migration song as it navigated just metres over my sleeping head in the middle of an urban environment, in the middle of the night, which would otherwise have gone completely unnoticed (and unappreciated). And May was to up the stakes further.....

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Spring Shorebirds On The Brigg

Purple Sandpiper, with strong hints of spring
A beautiful, peaceful afternoon spent latterly on the Brigg here in Filey in the hope of a few waders - happily not disappointed, with a handful of Purple Sandpipers, Turnstones, Dunlins, Whimbrel, Curlew and Oystercatchers, and a single Sanderling. Breeding plumage is starting to show on several species pictured - love this transitional time of year and these transitional plumages.

Purps at work
Purps, showing contrast in comparative plumage and moult

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

New Sensations - Filey, 22nd April 2020

Short-eared Owl - even less awake than I was
Another cool, clear, sunny morning and, as hoped, another batch of new arrivals here in Filey. Firsts for the year in the golden early light included Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Green Sandpiper (among a trickle of waders on the move) and Sedge Warbler, with a Swift past the study yesterday afternoon.

Nipping out for breakfast 

Green Sandpiper calling and heading east
A couple of Lapwings north
Four Golden Plovers south-east
Barn Owl prepping vole burrito
Lazy-ass Brown Hares

Monday, April 20, 2020

It's A Hard Nocmig

A Common Sandpiper in the flesh.... 
So, we're four weeks into the (partial) lockdown, and the skies outside are clear and blue, the wind is a brisk easterly roaring in off the North Sea, and the pressure is high - the perfect ingredients for a lockdown on vismig, nocmig, and indeed anymig....

... and a spectrogrammed apparition of one as it migrated over the house at 2304hrs last night

Not that I'd be spoilt enough to complain; I can access peace, birds, nature and breath-taking views on my daily circuits from the house, and for that I'm eternally grateful. But with the brakes pretty much slammed on re: migration and high pressure set to dominate for some days to come, it seems like a good opportunity to reflect on that new element of my local birding that many of us around the country, and no doubt the world, are experimenting with - Nocmig.

A Redwing migrating in daylight....
I started almost three weeks ago at the beginning of April (see here for a quick recap of what Nocmig is, and my DIY set-up) and have managed to record every night since - this despite tech issues, battery fails, human error, and various other limitations I'm slowly getting to grips with - and have, to my surprise, scored every night.

... and the evocative tsseeps of a night migrant a couple of nights ago

Trapping a little sound-recorder into the gap of a window pointing out into the alley and pressing record is pretty much as basic as it gets, and I'm looking into ways of improving my situation, but if you're thinking about giving it a go, hopefully it's some encouragement: If I can make it work, you probably can...

A Common Scoter navigating the waves on the Brigg....
As mentioned in that first post, I have serious limitations here which basically put me off any previous attempts, the biggest being physical contraints - I have no garden, I live in a 100% urban setting in the middle of town, and we're surrounded by what is effectively a sonic fortress of tall, terraced buildings.

... and a flock navigating the chimney pots of central Filey earlier this month

This means the 'reach' of my recorder is limited to a small piece of sky above my study window, and there's no parabolic capabilities (although I'm working on that); it also means the absence of any suitable habitat (and light/sound pollution) act as deterrents for migrants that can easily body-swerve the centre of town a few hundred metres in either direction.

A migrant Whimbrel at a local wetland....
Additionally, I have to contend with the ambient noise of an urban setting (as evidenced by the razor-sharp quality audio of humans arguing, laughing, coughing, urinating etc, as well as cats humping, dogs barking, and a wonderful spectrum of other sounds straight off a BBC Radiophonic Workshop LP). Last - but by no means least, trust me - is the, er, mixed blessing of living smack-bang in the middle of an increasingly amorous and vocal Herring Gull colony.

... and a migrant over the house last night

Red-listed they may be, but when they effectively write off 50-60% of an overnight recording, even I start to lose a little sympathy with them; worse still, they have an amazing variety of calls, which cover all frequencies, shapes and sizes on the spectrogram. 'Nemesis' doesn't even come close.....

Herring Gulls = bastards
But there are several upsides, too. Firstly, my location - I may be deep in the concrete and clay of an urban setting, but I'm also just a couple of hundred metres from the North Sea; the potential for picking up birds using the coast as a flightline, or picking up species coming in off before they gain height, is exciting. and while it's only speculation, this may already explain the number of Redwings and Common Scoter flocks that have skirted the chimney pots on many nights so far.

Aha! A Redwing sneaks through among the audiohell of Herring Gulls
And, it's only spring - this may be a toe-dipping prelude to a full-on deep-dive later in the year, and it may take me somewhat longer to scroll through the nightly spectrograms than the gull-limited 45 minutes at present. Even in present conditions, which are as discouraging as you can get here (strong wind straight onto the exposed recorder from the east, wind carrying a lot of extra ambient wave noise from the sea, high pressure, clear skies etc), I still had Common Sandpiper, Gadwall and Whimbrel migrating over my house last night.

Meadow Pipit  - a diurnal migrant, and a surprising addition to the #Nocmig list this week
Fantastic! Early days, but it's exciting stuff, and has the capacity to get much better still....

(*I may have already used that title for our local Nocmig Whatsapp group, but as regular readers are aware I know better than to let a good pun go to waste....)