Champions of the Flyway!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

More from the Brigg

I've spent the last couple of hours or so of light down on the Brigg these last two evenings, just enjoying the late autumn experience that I've come to look forward to in recent years. Red-throated Diver, a late Sandwich Tern, three Velvet Scoters, an even later Arctic Tern, and Common Scoters all pictured; also Little Auks, Goldeneyes, Great Northern Divers and more to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Little Auks, Filey Brigg - 29th Oct 2019

A cold, beautiful evening on a deserted Brigg with the hope of a few Little Auks filtering back north - bingo.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Lesson Kestrel

As you'd hope when October finally rolls around, it's been an eventful and entertaining few weeks here on the Yorkshire coast, and this week saw that theme continue.... in brief, a few days ago (22nd), news broke of a Lesser Kestrel photographed at Fraisthorpe Sands, East Yorks that morning. Posted on Twitter as a Common / Eurasian Kestrel, it was subsequently flagged up as a juvenile Lesser from the available images and was put out by the bird news services as such that evening; whether it would still be around the following day (23rd) was in the hands of the gods, but if it was, it would surely prove popular.

After a relatively quiet vismig session at Reighton Sands followed by a few hours office work, I noticed the bird was reported as still being present, and decided to go and have a look; after all, it was less than half an hour away, and while I'm not predisposed to (or a indeed a fan of) twitches - especially the bigger, more competitive circle-jerks - it would likely be educational and an interesting bird to try and get to grips with. I've seen many, but not in juvenile plumage and not on my doorstep, so the positives outweighed the negatives and I headed south.

As expected there were plenty of people there (maybe 60 or more) and of those who were looking, all were focused on a Kestrel sp. that had been hunting in the immediate area for a good while (several hours according to a few I spoke to who'd been there since early in the morning); at no point during the 90 or so minutes I was there did I see a second or third Kestrel sp. (despite regular checks!), and the crowds were exclusively focused on the one bird in question. So, was it the bird?

Well, I did hope for it to be educational, and it was. Superficially, it looked good - first impressions included a generally pallid appearance and a small-billed, cute demeanour, and behaviourally it periodically hunted and fed in a very Lesser-like manner; when perched (and viewed through a scope at distance); with better views, the 'open' face, accentuated by a diffuse and ill-defined moustachial stripe, pale ear-coverts and (seemingly) small and mostly pale bill also looked the part; and the primary formula apparently* matched up.

So far, so good, but in these situations it's best to assume nothing and avoid jumping to conclusions. My views were never good enough to see pale claws, and being completely objective, even freshly armed with the identification criteria there's no way I'd have given the bird a second glance had it not already been under the spotlight (and I'm not sure how sharp I'd be at finding an equivalent at anything other than close range). After discussions with several who know far more than I (probably ever will) about such things, particularly Jack - who remarkably referenced these ID features in his #Migweek talk for us the week before! - I've learned a lot and am really glad I made the effort. For Jack's informed conclusions (including *primary formula references), see here.

The psychology of these events, with the potential of county & national listing pressure, mob mentality and other factors influencing potential emperor's-new-clothes scenerios, is always interesting, as is how they pan out online (and this one is still rolling) - claims and counter-claims, two- and three-bird theories, celebratory and then hastily-retracted posts, accusations, bandwagon-jumpers pretending they knew best after all (and then jumping again), contradictory messages from bird news services and more, all coloured by the inherently wonky prisms of competitive listing, the pressures of delivering 'live' news and self-appointed armchair judges. Still, good fun innit?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Migweek 2019 - Migrants Welcomed, Job Done

Dawn breaks over Filey Brigg on the first morning of Migweek. Nine fine days lay ahead....

It's a wrap! Our 2019 Filey & Flamborough Ringing & Migration Week (aka Migweek) is done and dusted, and what a week it was.....

... well, nine days actually, as we kicked off at dawn on Saturday 12th, and finally wound up proceedings late on the afternoon of Sunday 20th. As I write a day later, the dust has barely begun to settle, but my inbox is brimming with lovely messages from visitors far and wide, thanking the team for what has been our best Migweek yet. Exactly how many attendees enjoyed our ringing demos, our guided walks, visible migration drop-ins, migration stations, exclusive programme of evening talks and more is hard to say, but we do know it was well into four figures; I lost count after our first day, when over 400 attended our various events!

The icing on the cake... there were a great many birding highlights during Migweek 2019, including huge falls of thrushes, big morning flights of finches, pipits and buntings, geese and swans powering overhead, seabirds on the move, and plenty of scarcities - but for many, this Red-flanked Bluetail which dropped into a net for the Filey team on an otherwise quiet midweek afternoon was a special reward.... 
Incredible, really, when you think it's a completely free, unfunded, volunteer-run, open-to-all festival that is now established as one of the major highlights of the national birding and wildlife calendar. There's literally nothing like it, anywhere – where else could you go from counting streams of finches migrating over your head at a vismig drop-in, to seeing a tiny Goldcrest (freshly arrived from over the North Sea) in the hand at any one of our ringing stations, to watching squadrons of Scandinavian Redwings tumbling out of the sky on a guided walk, to learning all about the latest tracking technology at an evening talk, all on the same day, and all completely free?

Goldcrests are a classic late autumn migrant on the Yorkshire coast, and Migweek visitors were entertained by birds scattered across the area and also in the hand at all of our ringing stations
Preparations began many moons ago, one important aspect of which was booking our always high-quality, rich and varied programme of speakers for the week. This year's talks programme was wonderful (as they always are, of course!) - every evening was filled to the brim, and every one was educational, inspiring, though-provoking and unmissable. When I first looked at creating a talks programme several years ago, I didn't know how many speakers would be prepared to do it for free - after all, these are often highly-skilled, engaging professionals who often study and espouse their chosen subjects for a living; but it turns out that, if you ask nicely and explain the free-for-all, open-to-all nature of Migweek, there are some very generous souls out there who are more than happy to help.

One of many great speakers at this year's Migweek, Jack Ashton-Booth brought the house down with his talk about raptors. Jack was this year's speaker for our Martin Garner Inspirational Talk, and it's fair to say he did our much-missed friend proud.
This year we had no fewer than seven talks, from Bec Jones (on the truth about urban gulls), Lizzie Bruce (on Spurn Bird Observatory), Dan Rouse (on record-breaking bird migrations), Ant Hurd (on Flamborough's seashore wildlife), myself (on marine mammals of the Yorkshire coast), Paul Stancliffe (on the BTO's cutting edge migration tracking work), and Jack Ashton-Booth (on his love affair with and study of raptors) - and to think many of the speakers travelled from far and wide, and put in all their time and energy free of charge. Thank you all, you're efforts are hugely appreciated!

It's always a pleasure to do things for local community groups during migweek (and beyond of course), and this year I gave a talk on behalf of the Filey Bay Initiative. Standing room only and a bit sweaty perhaps, but a lovely evening!
To put on a talks programme, you need a suitable venue, ideally one which you can wangle for free. Once again, the wonderful YWT Living Seas Centre stepped up, letting us use the Discovery Room for our talks and events (as well as the daily FBO Migration Station), setting everything up and tidying up after us, and generally going above and beyond to make it as special as it could be. Ant, Ana and the LSC staff - we couldn't do it without you, thanks a mil (again!).

Short-eared Owl coming in off the sea at Flamborough. Short- and Long-eared Owls arriving from the continent are a wonderful staple of Migweek and we had plenty incoming this year!
Our ringing teams at no fewer than three locations excelled themselves again with their professionalism, dedication and engagement - more so than ever, as evidenced by the relentless positive feedback from a great many visitors. At Flamborough, Jim and his team were there pretty much every morning for the hundreds of people who enjoyed hundreds of birds in the hand; at Bempton, Dave and his team held three very busy and extremely well-received demos; and at Filey, Dan and the team were next-level in their herculean efforts, effectively running public demos from dawn til dusk on most of the nine days (a few sessions were inevitably lost to the weather, but that's always the case). When you think about what goes into it - time off work, pre-dawn starts to set up nets and stations, long, quiet periods to get through between bursts of activity, the expectancy to be 'on' all the time for visitors - it's a fantastic commitment from many a skilled and generous ringer that provides the foundations, and many of the highlights, for Migweek. Huge thanks to everyone involved!

Even in torrential rain and driving winds, our hardy Migweek visitors turned out for the birds! Here's Will pulling out Ring Ouzel and Goldcrests from within the deluge at Bempton...
And then there's those who kindly led the walks and drop-ins at five sites across the area - some of which were subtantially busier than we anticipated! - thanks to all involved for their time and skills. And extra-special thanks to Keith, who ran his always inspiring, always especially well-received Visible Migration drop-ins at Hunmanby Gap. They're an absolutely essential and increasingly popular aspect of Migweek and I'm not sure any of us can imagine it without these visceral, in-the-thick-of-it celebratory sessions. Legend!

.... but most of walks were less punishing, including this one around the outer head...
Special thanks too to those who inspired me to carry on organising Migweek, despite certain challenges - that'll be Dan, Craig, Bec, Rich, Tony and Jo, and many others - and not least my amazing Mrs, who supports and tolerates these various 'follies' that would seriously strain a less understanding, more financially-driven relationship; she's the best, trust me. Tony and Jo, by the way, are unsung heroes not just of events like this but of so much that's made Flamborough Bird Observatory the open, friendly and dynamic Obs that it is today - a reflection of what a small voluntary Obs can achieve with a forward-thinking collective attitude.

... and this one (our last of the week) at South Landing. 44 people on one woodland walk is quite a few, so it was good to have some help (thanks Craig, Rich and John) - maybe I'll arrange a few more next year....
And then there's Tim and his colleagues at Scarborough Borough Council who support our local events, particularly at the Country Park; everyone who helps with the publicity (including e.g. Rare Bird Alert and Birdguides); to my good friend Jonah for designing the frankly gorgeous t-shirts and logos (for free, of course); and last but never least, Yorkshire Coast Nature, of course - who funded those Migweek t-shirts which have proved such a hit, and who have done plenty to promote Migweek far and wide (as always!).

Keith's vismig drop-ins at the Gap were more popular than ever - no surprise there
So it's fair to say we're really proud of what Migweek has blossomed into, and also of the as-yet-unquantified benefits it brings to the local area. I've lost count of the number of people who've told me they've booked into a BnB for the week, or have rented self-catering accommodation, or are eating out in local restaurants, or are meeting later in our pubs; the boost to the local economy must be impressive, and growing every year (and at a traditionally much quieter time of year, too). We can only speculate how much we're bringing in, but, it must a nice little bonus during a cold, wet and windy week in the off season....!

Pink-footed Geese were on the move in force during Migweek, happily often during our guided walks
So why do it? For me, and I'm betting I speak for pretty much everyone involved, it's simple. We live in a place which is nationally, even internationally, famed for its wildlife, particularly its birdlife; this is never more the case than in the throes of that magical season that sees birds from across the globe (literally!) arriving and departing from under our noses, above our heads and on our doorsteps. It's nothing short of a miracle, and it's a joy to share it – especially when that shared experience can have myriad positive effects, often inspiring a not just a sense of wonder but also sense of ownership and involvement.

A late arrival of Whinchats (as well as a good influx of Stonechats) was a feature of Migweek 2019
We've been raising money this year for our chosen charities of Jean Thorpe Wildlife Rescue and the Refugee Council, who'll benefit from the generosity of those who threw a few quid in the bucket after enjoying one or more of our events and activities; we're proud to support these two wonderful causes who do such great work. Hopefully, the birds, and our local wildlife, will benefit too, as those positive effects trickle into our communities in a variety of ways and means.

Shiny Happy People selling T's
So thanks to everyone - the ringing teams at Filey, Flamborough and Bempton; the walks and drop-in leaders; the incredible speakers; to everyone who mucked in, helped out, spread the word, came along and enjoyed the wonderful celebration that is Migweek - it was such a blast, and easily the best yet. See you next year!

Monday, October 21, 2019

Flamborough seawatch all-dayer, 21st Oct 2019

What a day! Even after a manic, crazed but wonderful #Migweek - nine days of mighty fine migration celebrations, to be summarised here anon - with strong North-easterlies howling down our North Sea coast, sleep would have to wait. Thus I spent over eight hours of it (with an hour or so's mid-afternoon break having a look at South Landing) in the uncommonly snug and yet roomy Seawatch Observatory, in the good company of various local and visiting birders who came and went, enjoying the Great White Cape at its best.

Star bird was this White-billed Diver which headed north at 0940hrs (and south-ish again not too long after), but it was a day of much quality, including 42 Little Auks, a Sabine's Gull, three Long-tailed Skuas, a Grey Phalarope, a European Storm-petrel, eight Pomarine skuas, seven Sooty Shearwaters, a Velvet Scoter, five Whoopers, three Great Northern Divers, Merlin, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls all in off the sea (and several other unspecified Asio owls likewise), 16 Bonxies, 20 Manxies and much more besides.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Halimodead-endri? Reighton Sands Lesser Whitethroat, Oct 2019

Remarkably (and excitingly), I watched this bird drop in from out of the blue on on the 8th (48 hours ago) during an early morning vismig session on my chosen clifftop VP at Reighton Sands, on the border of the Filey and Flamborough recording areas. I was fortunate to get a series of shots as it did so, and while it flicked around for a short while in a small hawthorn. Pretty soon it flitted up and, so I thought at the time, off; not so, however, as when I returned for another session of looking up this morning, its continued presence had me looking down.

Establishing it as a blythi (Siberian) would've been great - a vismig Sibe! - but those first impressions, and photos, had me concerned: the bird looked dinky, warm brown (well beyond the nape and onto the crown), big-headed, and short-winged, and most interestingly, had what appeared to be totally white outer-tail feathers. I sent photos around various learned birder friends (thanks all for feedback), who all suggested and agreed halimodendri was indeed most likely. This morning, I spent a lot of time checking (and attempting to photograph) the bird and its various features, and with better views and photos, the alarm bells are still ringing....

Posted / discussed this with the usual caveats, most obviously the lack of bullet-proof criteria (at least presently) to nail Central Asian halimodendri in the field. However, it seems to be a good candidate, based on various features: the all-white outer-tail feathers - supposedly found only on halimodendri - being particularly compelling, along with a small-billed, large-headed, small-bodied, short-winged, long-tailed overall impression, which, while subjective and 'supporting only' as ID features, are I think pretty clearly evident on the photos. As is the warm, pale brown hue; sunshine exaggerates this of course (esp on photos), but in shade, the same impression applied. Unfortunately (and despite best efforts), the bird hasn't called; it did, however, react instantly to a playback of the halimodendri churr, and apparently ignored the playback tacks of curruca and blythi.

So here it is, for reference only, for now at least - a small, dinky, pale brown late autumn Lesser Whitethroat, with totally white outer-tail feathers and a tantalising little aura.... On present criteria I wouldn't want to call it 100% either way (unlike what I think is a bolt-on example here almost exactly three years ago - see here and here), but worth putting out there at least.