Champions of the Flyway!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flamborough & the coast, 3rd - 6th September 2010

Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind - listen to the birds. Eubie Blake

I try to go back home to Flamborough half a dozen times a year these days, combining time with the folks with as much birding as possible, usually for three or four days. Scheduling is abitrary, and I sort the time off and trains well in advance, so coinciding my visits with, for example, falls of migrants or seabird movements is always in the hands of the gods.

While there's been some memorable adventures in the field over recent years, where true far-eastern promise is concerned the stars have rarely aligned; until last week, that is. With a classic east coast autumn weather system apparently holding (high over Scandinavia, easterlies over the North Sea) tempered only by the lack of forecast precipitation or frontal movement, there was good reason to anticipate something special.

3rd: Leaving Kings Cross before dawn and arriving on the head by 10 a.m., the sun was shining, the wind had dropped to a whisper and a certain passerine had, extraordinarily, decided to stay overnight.... staying faithful to a sunny and sheltered corner where Old Fall hedge meets the plantation, the fresh-in Eastern Olivaceous Warbler performed impeccably over the course of two hours, just as I arrived.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Old Fall

Showing poorly the day before, and disappearing for good shortly after we left it, recent very-near misses with eastern exotica were swiftly forgotten within an hour arriving on the Head. A supporting cast of Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and Willow Warblers in the same patch of vegetation made for a fine scene, and just as we were about to leave, large raptors began appearing en masse overhead - within a couple of minutes nailed down to 17 Common Buzzards and two Honey-buzzards.

Common Buzzards

A cup of tea in Richard's garden produced the first Barred Warbler of the trip, and a late lunch at the old man's place in the village produced another five Common Buzzards low overhead in the warm sunshine. Ninety minutes scrutinising the willows by the golf course provided an entertaining roll call of warblers, popping out one by one - Lesser and Common Whitethroats, a Reed Warbler (which quickened the pulse for a while), three Willow Warblers, a brief view of a yellowish Hippolais which got away, and a very showy Barred Warbler. An evening check of South Landing beach produced seven wader species, including five Bar-tailed Godwits.

4th: The good people of the local RSPB group kindly asked me to be the lead observer on the upper deck of the Yorkshire Belle for this week's pelagic cruise - three and half hours in Bridlington Bay and off the tip od the Head in pursuit of passage seabirds. Although the omens were not good (precious little movement along the coast over previous days and weeks, and a continuing light south-easterly) and expectations were low, we did pretty well - the morning's highlights included a juvenile Black Tern around the boat, five Arctic Skuas, a Bonxie and three Sooty Shearwaters amongst the more expected fare.

Harbour Porpoise, Bonxie, Black Tern, Gannets, Arctic Skua

A few sessions on the Head in the afternoon produced little in the way of new arrivals, but with the winds due to strengthen and cloud forecast overnight, anticipation was on the rise....

5th: an early start and straight out onto the outer head, variously with Phil, Rich and Craig, in the as-predicted moderate and gusty south-easterlies - and in truth not a great deal to eulogise over; a few common warblers (including another skulking Reed, this time in Bluethroat Dyke), a couple of Arctic Skuas off the cliff, at least seven Lapland Buntings in the outer fields (one of which almost becoming breakfast for a local Peregrine), and a Barred Warbler still in the bay.

Lapland Buntings

Time to call it a day, and spend the afternoon and evening with the maternal side of the family line. A run out to nearby Filey Dams YWT before a scheduled dinner reservation in Bridlington was pleasant as ever, with a Little Egret (still not a common bird in these parts), Dunlin, several Wigeon, Common Sandpiper, plenty of Teal etc to look at.... until the mobile rang, and within a split second of looking at the screen, I knew I was in the proverbial.

Stonechat and Whitethroat juveniles in the bay

Wigeon, Filey Dams

Having left Rich with strict instructions (if it's rare, don't call; if it's very rare, do...), and knowing he fully appreciated the delicate nature of my situation, it had to be big. "Brown Flycatcher, Buckton". A predictable playing-out of expletives, awkward negotiations and hooking-up arrangements saw us arriving at the end of Hoddy Cows Lane 15 minutes later, car doors flung open and closed, and Rich, Dad and I bombing up the track.

Tearing across a succession of trackless fields in a small motor would deter most, but with the old man at the wheel, such barriers are traditionally non-existent (all those RAC rallies in the North Yorkshire forests weren't for nothing). Minutes later, and we approached the small, remote, gorse-filled dell barely visible between the expanse of arable land near the clifftop.

And there it was - sat out in the open in the sunshine. A truly stunning little poster-bird, performing absurdly well in a small and sheltered bare patch in the gorse, with a Pied Fly, a Spot Fly, a Garden Warbler and a Willow Warbler for close company - none of which were nearly as sore-thumb like. In truth, as an ID challenge there was probably little reason to use binoculars; as a spectacle, there was plenty of reason, and the views were exceptional.

Brown Flycatcher, Buckton

With the news only just filtering out and the finder and local birder Dave grinning blankly alongside us, we had a good hour or more of the bird to ourselves before the masses began to descend. Chaperoned back to Flamborough in plenty of time to placate and prepare for the evening, all was well in the world.

6th: Despite plenty of wishful thinkers having visions to the contrary, the Flycatcher left overnight, but with the now easterly wind strenthening further (becoming truly blustery by lunchtime) and the cloud thickening, it still looked good; and so, after brief checks of various spots on the outer head, Dad and I decided to join Mark and Jenny at Buckton.

Barred Warbler, Selwicks Bay

Mark is pathologically patch obsessive - one of many things we have in common, except his isn't a large puddle in the middle of Babylon, it's a migration nirvana on the north side of Flamborough Head. And doesn't let the fact that he lives in Bedfordshire stand in his way; over the last few years, he's made Buckton a migrant trap to die for, complete with habitat creation, net rides through every few bushes, a heligoland forthcoming and even an on-site caravan to crash in.

Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Wheatear and Lesser Whitethroat

Too windy to set many nets, we spent a memorable few hours on the clifftop watching diurnal migration at it's most exciting. Passerines dropping into the grass, just metres from the North Sea, not even stretching the extra 200 metres to the nearest scrub - Common Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers, Willow Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Wheatears buzzed around us and ditched down out of the wind.

With a single 30 ft set in the nearest dell, we trapped a few very tired migrants, none of which possessed any fat content - several Spot flys were thus taxied over the nearest woodland (does car-assisted still count?), and by late afternoon, I had to drag myself away and head back to London. A wonderful few days on the cape.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Provence, France - 25th - 31st August 2010

(for wildlife photos from the trip, scroll down beyond this post)

Luckily for us, our very dear friends Maryna, Richard and Frankie Fontenoy did the right thing earlier this year and found themselves an idyllic house in Caumont-sur-Durance, a village in Provence countryside about 15 km south-east of Avignon; figuring it'd be terribly rude not to visit before the summer was through, Amity and I wrangled the last week of August off work for sun-kissed frolics. A smooth and easy journey involving the Eurostar, a taxi-dash across Paris and a high-speed SNCF double-decker found us the proverbial world away within a few hours, a glass of the local poison in hand and six days of luxury exile ahead.

Being lucky enough to make plenty of birding trips these days (several of which are approaching fast this autumn), I was happy to heed the mantra gently hammered into me by the other half that this was resolutely not one of them; not least because of the wonderful non-birding (but very much bird- and nature-appreciating) company, naturally relaxing surroundings and the various other healthy(ish) distractions on offer.

But, with all concerned more than happy to accomodate my addiction, and willing to partake and / or cut plenty of slack, an easy balance was struck. Based in the village and with excursions most days, plenty of memorable avian highlights were woven into the itinery, deliberately and otherwise; and those highlights went something like this.

Many sojourns around the immediate environs of the neighbourhood - gardens, quiet lanes, small farmsteads - provided some great birds. In a foreign land where a freak in a straw cowboy hat with a paparazzi lens loitering in the bushes is understandably unusual, avoiding being shot / arrested / mauled by rottweilers required a little skill, but was ultimately worthwhile. Highlights included Sardinian Warblers (including a family in the garden), plenty of Serins, single Orphean and Wood Warblers, numerous, tame and entertaining Pied Flycatchers, odd Willow Warblers and Common Redstarts (and plenty of Black Redstarts), and very accomodating Western Bonelli's Warblers.

Dawn visits to Fontenoy Hill (ie, the upper end of the garden, affording 360 views of the surrounding ridges and countryside in the valley) added Ravens, migrating hirundines (including plenty of Red-rumped Swallows), and some memorable raptor experiences. Short-toed Eagles occupied the hill just opposite and performed beautifully both in the air and perched, a Bonelli's Eagle soared low and directly overhead one morning, and after experiencing a kettle of 20 odd Honey-buzzards appearing overhead from a nearby ridge the day before, a sky-watch during the first two hours of light on the 30th produced a stunning 187, all moving south-west down the river valley.

More Honey-bees were added in random locations such as over markets and another 20+ over Alan-pierre and Yvette's idyllic country pile a few miles east of the village, but the early, constant stream described above was a total surprise and a joy to observe. The latter location's neighbouring farmland and vineyards also hosted a European Roller (a personal first-for-many-years), initially spotted on nearby telephone wires while Frankie and I played table tennis in the searing heat of midday.

Two long, lazy afternoons were wiled away at the Camargue. An hour's drive roughly south, we spent our time at Saintes-Marie-de-la Mer, the region's capital (host to Van Gogh, Romany pilgrimages and religious aberrations amongst other things) for extended lunches and equally extended sessions on the beach and in the Med. With a couple of hours to steal nearby on each occasion, I explored the Etang, an expansive saline lagoon neighbouring the town, with Richard for company for the first session.

Essentially a huge tidal inlet with heat-haze views for miles to the north and west, the lagoon itself was populated by a certain pink local icon, and in serious numbers; small sections of saltmarsh and scrub allowed close views of Zitting Cisticolas, Great White, Little and Cattle Egrets, Sandwich Terns and other expected species, but a little patience paid off, with a Spoonbill, a Tawny Pipit, and - most impressively - flocks of Purple Herons appearing in the distance, circling high, approaching much closer, finding a thermal and then heading out en masse over the Mediterranean.

Further ostensibly non-birding excursions provided more highlights. An afternoon spent enjoyably (and somewhat comically) canoeing down the Sorgue at a (mostly) gentle pace was memorable for many reasons, including flocks of European Bee-eaters and Crag Martins hawking low above us, as well as plenty of Cetti's and Pied Flys, and a couple of close Kingfishers almost joining us in the canoes.

An evening visit to the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, nestled into the lower crags of the stunningly beautiful ridge, multitudes of Alpine Swifts and Crag Martins coming low over the village to feed in the evening sunlight and returning in waves to the network of caves a little higher up in the cliff-face.

So a less single-minded, less focused, and oddly 'normal' foreign trip in the best possible sense, with fine food, wine, company and birds - a better way to begin an autumn of rich and varied travelling is hard to imagine. Love and thanks again to our wonderful hosts Maryna, Richard and Frankie - we look forward to your moving there permanantly and keeping our room prepared.....

(and thanks to Rich for the above photos)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Provence, August 2010 - non-avian fauna

The French Family Fontenoy and other animals

Provence, August 2010 - raptors

Honey Buzzards migrating over Caumont ridge, Bonelli's Eagle over the house, Common Buzzard, and Short-toed Eagles on the opposite hill