Champions of the Flyway!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

On the rocks

Which describes both these handsome subjects out on the Brigg, and active migration on the patch at the minute.... After a great August, it looks like September is set to redress the balance. Still, Plenty left in the tank, and a long way to go....

(Knot, Kingfisher, Turnstone, Ringed Plover)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Commercial break

In between working for the degree and doing as much patch birding as humanely possible, I've banged out a few articles of late - several are to be published in magazines and on websites soon, and several others are already out there, including:

A review of Simmering Seas, a talk by Dr Euan Dunn (for the RSPB website) - available here

A look at plumage variation in autumn Willow Warblers at Filey (for the Filey Obs website) - available here

A migration round-up for August at Bempton & Buckton (for the RSPB) - available here

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Filey, 1st - 15th September 2015

Male Common Redstart, having just dropped in alongside us on the clifftop
Swings and roundabouts. After a cracking August on the patch, the first half of September was more miss than hit, and more what might have been than what actually transpired; still, some decent birds and birding nevertheless, and just one of those promising but ultimately underwhelming periods that inevitably occur from time to time in the midst of a migration season.

Grey-headed Wagtail, East Lea
For the first week or so, it was all about the sea, with a north-westerly and latterly northerly airflow dominating. A Balearic and five Sooty Shearwaters on the first morning of the month bode well, and a satisfying six hours the following day produced a Long-tailed Skua, another Balearic Shearwater, seven Sootys and 25 Arctic Skuas. The forecast for 3rd looked better still, and with a monster swell at Brigg level effectively obscuring most of the avian action but, fortunately, the wind speed and direction allowing observations from halfway up the slope without the risk of perishing (a rare combination), treats included a pristine adult Long-tailed Skua, a summer-plumage Black-throated Diver, an adult Pomarine Skua and another Balearic Shearwater.

Heavily cropped (!) Sparrowhawk at the Dams
Come 4th and, with the northerly picking up speed and limited time on the clock, we nailed two Long-tailed Skuas and ten Sootys first thing before prior arrangements had to be fulfilled. On the one hand, having to leave the patch with the perfect sea-watching conditions about to kick in was a nightmare scenario; on the other, at least it was Spurn we were headed for, where we were to represent Filey Obs and Yorkshire Coast Nature at the third annual Migration Festival. Long story short, the planned sea-watching on Saturday morning there was unfortunately a write-off (howling storms, leaking tent, no sleep etc.) and so, with a fine list of storm-blown treasures tantalisingly coming through from just a couple of miles away, I expected the worst from back on the patch.

Redstart at the Tip
As it turned out, I somehow got away with it, apparently missing only a few more Balearics and Sootys passing the Brigg; but I couldn't help thinking that if I'd have been back in the hide, I'd have scored substantially higher, bedding in and staying there all day. Still, thankfully I'll never know, and the blow was more than softened by a Migfest that was a huge pleasure to be part of - more of that to follow. Back in Filey for late Sunday afternoon, we even managed to twitch a brief Curlew Sandpiper at East Lea before collapsing soon after.

Bar-tailed Godwit on the Brigg
Back down the slope and in the hut for dawn on 7th, and a moderate NW at least provided some solace in the shape of a Long-tailed Skua, a Balearic Shearwater (spot the developing theme?) and a satisfying haul of 44 Sooty Shearwaters. Another Balearic first thing on 8th (plus a Velvet Scoter in the bay) preceded a shift of balance from the sea to the land, with a south-easterly airflow due to take over.

Initially calm and clear conditions predictably provided little on 10th aside from the odd Whinchat and a male Redstart (which dropped in right alongside us as we picked brambles on the clifftop), but with the easterlies due to hold, it was surely worth forensically scouring the area over the coming few days...

Teal over the Brigg
Which naturally we did, with somewhat mixed results. With Yellow-brows very much on the hit list (and the first exceptionally early wave arriving on the coast) as well as other scarcities, I spent more time (fruitlessly) staring up into canopy than was probably healthy, but as it turned out, a far less expected (and much rarer) passerine was there to be found. A brief drop-in at East Lea - venue of my Flava-full escapades in the spring - produced a distinctly cold and interesting-looking Yellow Wagtail among a small group of albas, clearly warranting a little more scrutiny.

Some creative fieldcraft, a reel of photos and typically educational input from a certain Mr Garner of Flamborough later and happily we'd the year's second Grey-headed Wagtail - a rare county bird (averaging just a couple per annum) and a quality scarcity to reward a long day's efforts. A little more sobering, however, were the following few days, which - despite the right winds, rain and weather fronts - stubbornly resisted conjouring either quality or quantity, and provided a timely lesson in how no matter how good the theory is, practice is something else entirely.

A Sooty Shearwater heading south this morning...
There were bits and pieces - Tree Pipit, Redstart and two Whinchats together on a metre of fenceline at the Tip on the eve of 11th, two Kingfishers on the Brigg on 12th, the autumn's first Snow Bunting in off on 13th, among others - but it was left to the sea to round off the fortnight on a higher note, and this morning's (15th) four hour stint in the hide was unexpectedly entertaining.

...and a Balearic doing likewise
A moderate southerly hardly inspired much expectation, but by late morning I'd been treated to a juvenile Long-tailed Skua and a Balearic Shearwater (it's turning into a good autumn for both these species at Filey), plus eight Sooty Shearwaters, two Little Gulls, 14 Arctic and eight Great Skuas among a decent supporting cast. Not a classic first half of September, but not so bad either, especially when it's all within fifteen minutes of your house.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mammalian invasion

Patrolling the patch for extended sessions on most days means inevitably and happily coming into contact with various other beasts which are a privilege to observe, including this Weasel (which tailed me for a good ten to fifteen minutes in the Rocket Pole Field - perhaps I was being unwittingly employed as a potential prey beater?), and these Common Seal pups (far from common here, and a joy to have around).

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Barred from the Bluebell

Just back in sunny Filey after a fantastic Spurn Migration Festival - more to follow, but for now, a very obliging Barred Warbler from this morning...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Filey, 16th - 31st August 2015

The first of a fine selection of Wrynecks during the last half of August, this bird showing beautifully on Carr Naze
With a productive first fortnight of the month culminating in an early and unexpected rarity (in the shape of the Carr Naze Greenish on 14th), any early autumn pressure was already alleviated heading into the second half of August; if it turned out to be poor in the field, so be it - after already eclipsing the same month last year, anything else would be a bonus.

Pied Flycatcher - a pleasingly numerous and iconic fixture of several falls during the period
The 15th provided two Little Terns north past the Brigg and an exceptionally early Fieldfare feasting on berries in Parish Wood, but the beginning of the month's second half was otherwise fairly quiet (but for a nice selection of common waders at the Dams and East Lea, including a Wood Sand and plenty of Ruff). With a pleasingly messy chart overnight on the 18th, however (bringing variable winds, drizzle and fog), Carr Naze was surely worth a shot for the possibility of grounded migrants first thing.

Marsh Harrier - an increasingly regular sight in early autumn
Comrade Dan thought likewise, already kicking a Wryneck out of the grass by the time I'd arrived (which soon disintegrated), but Willow Warblers, a Whinchat, and a distinctly knackered Spot Fly on the clifftop in the drizzle all bode well. We were soon joined by George, who mentioned he was hoping for his first decent view of a Wryneck - prompting a swift re-materialisation as the bird nonchalantly began hopping around on the path in front of us in the steadily brightening morning light.

We weren't the only ones stalking migrants on Carr Naze
With the cloud breaking up and temperatures rising, we headed the short distance to the sheltered, sun-trapping northern side of Top Scrub in the hope of more new arrivals; having barely had chance to hop the gate, we clocked on to a single bird heading close past us and over towards the north cliff - Wryneck #2. Two Wrynecks would of course have done just fine at that point, but the possibility of more classic early autumn scarcities was very much on the cards; with this in mind, we were soon scanning a small cast of warblers and flycatchers enjoying the profusion of insects on offer - one of which, conveniently sitting out on an exposed branch against the now clear sky - soon turned into a cracking Icterine Warbler; our first of the year of a (just about) annual continental drift migrant, and the third scarcity of the morning safely in the bag.

Icterine #1 (Top Scrub, 18th)
Incredulity gave way to barely stifled laughter when a bird emerged from the scrub soon after, sat calmly atop a pine, and turned out to be Wryneck #3. After enjoying our spoils in the warm sunshine, we decided to head a little further along towards the corner of Long Lane, where another small handful of insectivores were active. Half-absently firing the camera at a warbler and glancing at the image on the screen, it was with an almost ungratefully over-casual tone that I found myself mentioning "another Icterine" feeding in front of us.... five scarcities in a couple of hundred metres? Sometimes it really does all come together.

Wryneck #3 (Top Scrub, 18th)
The following day saw far fewer thrills on the land, but a trio of hard-to-get local scarcities maintained my lucky streak - two Spotted Redshanks over the Brigg, a Black Tern off it, and a Yellow-legged Gull on the beach; the presence of up to three Wrynecks in the magic bush, meanwhile - even assuming two of which were ours - added at least one more to the running total. A pleasantly mixed bag of species over the next couple of days included a Little Stint (south past the hide with a Dunlin and a Grey Plover, no less - not a sight I expect to see very often), a Red-necked Grebe, several Sooty Shearwaters and Little Gulls at sea, and a few Pied Flys among commoner migrants in the bushes.

Icterine #2 (Top Scrub, 18th)
So far so good, but with the wind again swinging into the east, there was no time for laurel-resting, and by close of play on 23rd, the cloud had thickened, the wind strengthened and the birds again began to arrive. A last-ditch session on Carr Naze in fading light revealed five fresh-in Whinchats, eight Pied Flys, eight Willow Warblers, seven Pintails low overhead, and best of all, another Wryneck bolting swiftly inland before night fell.

Temminck's Stint, East Lea, 18th
Suffice to say, it wasn't a problem making it into the field for dawn on 24th, and the team - now including Nick, awol from the Gap - duly spread out, covering several areas along the coastal strip over the course of the day (a satisfying phrase to use, for the first but hopefully not last time). It soon became clear that a serious fall of continental migrants had taken place overnight, and as the day wore on, it was obvious that birds were still arriving in waves.

What better way to end a hard day's birding (24th) than watching a Wryneck dropping onto the clifftop in front of you....
To cut a long story short, it was a memorable day of both quantity and quality, of multitudinous common migrants and a fine cast of scarcities, and a day of shared spoils; between us, we'd uncovered one, probably two Icterine Warblers at Gristhorpe Bay (Nick), a Red-backed Shrike and a Wryneck at the Tip (Dan), and for me, a Wood Warbler, a Wryneck and an Icterine Warbler in the Carr Naze / Country Park area. Six scarcities on another cracking August day here on the patch, and that's before the other passerines....

Red-veined Darter, Long Hedge - Filey has been easily the best place in northern England for this migratory species in 2015
The undisputed stars of which were Pied Flycatchers, clocking in at a minimum of 62 for the day (of which I was fortunate to see at least 45); their characteristic wing-flicking and bill-snapping was the defining feature of the day, and new birds were arriving throughout. Slightly more numerous still were Willow Warblers (at least 75), with minimum tallies of at least 15 Garden Warblers, 12 Whinchats, 12 Wheatears, 11 Redstarts, nine Spotted Flycatchers, three Lesser Whitethroats, eight Common Whitethroats, three Reed Warblers, two Tree Pipits and a Fieldfare, plus two Marsh Harriers and two Short-eared Owls and a long list of waders on the move - the best of which was a wholly unexpected (less than annual, and far rarer in autumn), elusive and educational Temminck's Stint at the far end of East Lea later in the day.

The next few days were somewhat quieter, but still provided small numbers of migrants, and the cast of waders at the Dams / East Lea continued to grow and evolve; the pick of the bunch were a further two Wood Sandpipers, but a good year for this species soon got better, however, when peaks of four together later in the month took the overall tally into double figures. Otherwise, Greenshanks and Green and Common Sandpipers were omnipresent, Blackwits regular and Ruff numerous among other species.

As the winds became fixed in the west towards the month's end, the dust was allowed to temporarily settle on what was unequivocally a quality August here in Filey; and with the forecast showing a northerly airstream for the beginning of September, it was time to look out to sea.....

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Filey, 1st - 15th August 2015

Not exactly the best of photos, but it pretty much perfectly encapsulates why I love the magic of autumn patch birding - fog, easterlies and drizzle on an otherwise deserted Carr Naze, and a great bird fresh-in on the edge of the cliff (in this case, the UK's first Greenish Warbler of the season)
It's been a good month. In fact, the preceding couple of weeks were far from poor, with local scarcities including European Storm-petrel (my first in-the-field record here - on a northerly blow on 27th), a handful of Poms, a Little Tern, a couple of juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls and a gorgeous adult Long-tailed Skua on the last day of July among others. So after giving my notebooks, this site and the Filey Bird Obs latest sightings archive the once-over for research purposes, I headed into the new month with a suitably seasoned perspective on upcoming possibilities.

Taken in the same spot on a somewhat sunnier day - buzzed by a Bonxie while seawatching from the top
Those resources serve to temper as well as inspire, of course, and while there were many highlights from the previous three Augusts on the land and over the sea, they also illuminate less rose-tinted realities; like, for example, how - despite more efforts than I care to recall - the same month last year failed to produce a single passerine scarcity (thank the gods for sea-watching). Better luck this year?

A seawatch bonus ball and patch gold - a Kingfisher heads north past the hide
The first couple of days were quiet, but the 3rd saw wader traffic increasing significantly, the best of which were two Spotted Redshanks over the Brigg, plus an adult Roseate Tern and another Yellow-legged Gull south (all less than annual, and therefore year-list gold dust); a Little Stint at the Dams at dusk rounded off a very productive day, followed a couple of days later by a sunny seawatch on 7th, providing both a Kingfisher (just about annual) and three more Pomarine Skuas.

The unforgettable sight of at least 2,700 Gannets engaging in a constantly morphing, action-packed feeding frenzy close inshore
A hugely enjoyable and successful Filey Wildlife Weekend followed (see here, and thanks to all who helped and attended), heralding a period of warm and calm conditions. Perfect for encouraging bait-balls offshore, which in turn encouraged breath-taking exhibitions from thousands-strong maelstroms of marauding Gannets, and up to three Minke Whales (and 16 Harbour Porpoise) on the hot and sunny evening of 12th. Thrown in an early Red-necked Grebe and a couple more Poms courtesy of the sea, and the first half of August was shaping up pretty well.

A somewhat non-plussed juvenile Swallow
Looking at the weather forecast for the morning of 14th was tantalising; one the one hand, with high pressure building over Scandinavia, a north-easterly airflow across the North Sea and (crucially) misty, murky conditions overnight and into the day here on the coast - all the composite pieces for an early taste of continental drift migration. On the other hand, it's rarely quite so simple: mid-August is indeed early for passerine scarcities, especially for Filey (although I've had Icterine Warbler on the same date a couple of years ago), and no matter how perfect the conditions may seem, they by no means necessarily deliver (see above).

Juvenile Skylark on Carr Naze 
Still, I hardly needed my arm twisting, and after a disappointing couple of hours sea-watching from dawn, I reached the top of the slope at the end of Carr Naze; pausing for breath in fine drizzle and mist, I looked up to see a Whinchat alighting on hogweed close by - the first of the autumn, and an encouraging sign. A few more paces, and glancing back across the same stand of clifftop umbellifers, a Phyllosc flicked up briefly before soon evaporating - strong supercilium, green(ish) above and clean underneath, and a maybe a hint of a wing-bar? Game on....

Greenshank at the Dams
Inevitable drama ensued when the bird disappeared over the cliff-edge, with no hint of the direction it may have taken; but to cut a long story short, good fortune was on my side this time, and after some nervous rounds of cat-and-mouse, everything fell into place: flitting from one side of the peninsula to the other was indeed a pristine Greenish Warbler, only the second here in a decade (after I was lucky enough to find the last, three years back), good enough to call and even stick around long enough for friends to enjoy. Quite an end to the first half of the month, and a perfect omen for the coming weeks.....