Champions of the Flyway!

Friday, January 31, 2020

Hammer Time

Sneaked out for a couple of hours checking the Top Fields, North Cliff, Filey Fields Farm and Tip area of coastal agricultural land here in Filey this morning, and clocked relatively large aggregations of seedeaters, particularly in areas of (sadly temporary) set-aside - counts included 235 Tree Sparrows, 94 Reed Buntings, 47 Skylarks and a locally exceptional 122 Yellowhammers.

Progress marches on unhindered of late, with hedgerows ripped out, housing developments spreading like diseases and the monocultural agri-ghettos leaving barely any space for wildlife locally, but at least those fields and hedges spared for short periods still attract wintering passerines. Enjoy them while you can....

No Short-eared Owls unfortunately, although dog-walkers did inform me that bird photographers had been harassing them constantly a few days ago - an irony that was far from lost on me.... at sea, a Bonxie joined 320 Gannets in a feeding flock and at least seven Harbour Porpoise were inshore.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Review of the Year, 2019 - Part Six

Sunset on Cairn Gorm, with a blanket of fog shrouding the valley below
The final part of my 2019 year in review - on reflection, a very busy, fulfilling and productive one - and the theme continued; in fact if anything it became busier still, with three memorable trips crammed into the last six weeks or so of the year.

Great views of Golden Eagle in the Strathdearn area
In November we were invited back to the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey in the Scottish Highlands, and what a week it was: as well as the stunning landscapes, the full spectrum of suitably dramatic weather (heavy snow, deep frosts, bright sunshine, impenetrable fog and more), the warm hospitality at the hotel, the fine company and the peace and quiet, we pretty much cleaned up regarding our wildlife targets....

Cold... but happy
... which included stunning views of Golden Eagles (see here), highly entertaining Black Grouse leks (see here), showy Ptarmigan and Mountain Hares on Cairn Gorm (see here), lots of Crested Tits and Red Squirrels (see here), and plenty more besides. My talks and walks for the BWWC during the week were busy and lots of fun as always, and we're already looking forward to returning next winter.

Crested Tits in Abernethy - not to be missed
I was back for a few days (just long enough for Humber surveying and giving talks) before it was time to exchange the damp, dark North Yorkshire December for the warmer, brighter, bird-filled alternative of Northern Israel. I was invited by Sheli and the team to assist and advise on the amazing job they're doing with the Jordan Valley Birding Centre, near Beit She'an on the Jordanian border - a birder's dream scenario of peace, relaxation, great hospitality, and so many birds....

Black Storks - the very appropriate and approachable logo bird for the JVBC
I spent the best part of a fortnight out there, and for first part I was based at the JVBC with its perfect placement for great birding right on the doorstep and a little further afield (including the legendary northern valleys within an hour or so); I blogged about it throughout December (see here and work down!) and early January (see here) and had a blast with fine friends, birds and weather -  and will be back sooner or later!

Dead Sea Sparrows are commonplace around the lodge
The Jordan Valley Birding Centre and Lodge is the very model of sustainable, ecologically-sensitive, small scale, perfectly accommodating eco-tourism, and I'd recommend it to anyone; it's almost too good to be true and I've huge respect for what Sheli and the team are achieving there.

Of the many raptors wintering in the Hula Valley, Eastern Imperial Eagles are one of the most majestic... 
For the latter part of the trip I stayed with our dear friends the Perlmans, joining Yoav on plenty of fieldwork excursions and birding sessions at numerous locations from the Mediterranean to the West Bank to central interior Israel; as always, a huge pleasure and a lot of fun (jumping a high fence for a Lesser White-fronted Goose springing to mind...); roll on March and another opportunity to savour one of the world's greatest migration bottlenecks.

Tufted Titmouse....
Back home to the Yorkshire coast for a week or so and then it was time for the final trip of the year - a fortnight with my American family in Massachusetts. We've been back to Amity's home turf many times over these last 15 years, but never at Christmas - and it's a big deal to our warm and inclusive extended family, and so was long overdue.

... and White-throated Sparrow in the garden.... 
It was all about family time of course, but there's always something to enjoy, and the snow made for a pretty backdrop - so bone-cracking temperatures were braved for short forays now and again to enjoy some familiar garden species. More here.

... sensibly avoiding a Sharp-shinned Hawk close by

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review of the Year, 2019 - Part Five

The first and most satisfying Red-footed Falcon of the Swedish trip
After a great summer at home and away, autumn proper began with a fine eight days over late August and early September in south-west Sweden, where I'd the privilege of speaking at the Falsterbo Bird Show - a perfect excuse to revisit this awe-inspiring Observatory in peak season, and also to stay with our friends Paul, Äsa and Marianne on and around their idyllic little farm in Vejbystrand, which is where we started the trip.

Warm, calm seas and deserted beaches - Sweden sucks
A lot of relaxing - soaking up the sunshine, eating home-grown organic delights and swimming in the warm, calm sea included - was punctuated with plenty of quality birding; on the farm, raptors were moving through in force (see here), and on the nearby coast, migration was kicking in nicely - the highlight of which was a beautifully showy, southbound Red-footed Falcon on Paul's local patch (more of this beauty here).

One of many European Honey-buzzards
Falsterbo was wonderful (of course), staying with our dear friends Bjorn (FBO director and all round legend), Karolina and the kids - and it was a privilege to give a talk in the conference hall, flatteringly (or foolishly) well-attended as the Honey-buzzards streamed over outside; being on the bill between Per Alström and Lars Jonsson takes your imposter syndrome to new levels, trust me. The festival, and the whole experience, was simultaneously wonderfully laid back and insipiring - Falsterbo is a wonderful place for enjoying the company of old friends and new, and the shared migration experience is something else....

The Falsterbo crew - yes, it was a lot of fun....
A couple of weeks later and another bird-filled trip beckoned, this time to Unst, Shetland - the most northerly place in the the British Isles - for a week of frolics with the Terriers (a timely reunion after our Champions of the Flyway escapades the previous spring). The birding was good, but the location and the company alone made it a fantastic trip and a real blast was had by all (more here); it was impossible not to fall in love with the place, and we may just be sneaking back again this autumn....

Snow Bunting, Unst
Back on home soil for early October and it was straight back into guiding, and a series of new, fully-booked Bespoke Migration Specials for Yorkshire Coast Nature, which were a pleasure to lead (I'm leading a limited number again this autumn).

Spot the Yellow-brow (clue - they were everywhere, bless 'em)
Then, before pausing for breath, it was Migweek..... it was the fourth time I'd the pleasure of organising this free birding festival since taking the initial leap and rolling it out back in 2016, and it was the biggest and best ever: the birds played ball (with lots of quality and quantity on offer, and most importantly, some dramatic mass arrivals to savour), and we were (willing) victims of our own success - visitor numbers were well into four figures, walks and outdoor events were fantastically well-attended, talks were fully booked, and the ringing stations were bustling.

Eiders on the move during autumn Northerlies
It really couldn't have gone any better, and if I needed any reminders about how worthwhile it is putting together such a celebration of migration, well, I got plenty. Check out the full story here.

A very accommodating Shorelark at Flamborough...
Aside from the trips, the guiding, Migweek and other commitments, October also involved some good old-fashioned regular patch birding. While many of the notable days and sightings happily coincided with my YCN days / Migweek etc, there were plenty of others on days when I was able to clear the decks and sneak out, and there was plenty to enjoy.

... and a White-billed Diver passing the new Seawatch Observatory
The many vismigging pleasures at Reighton Sands included this Ring Ouzel heading south 
My chosen vismig watchpoint at Reighton Sands came up with the goods on many early mornings (see here for example), and there were some memorable seawatches at both Flamborough and Filey - a flavour of which can be found here.

One of good numbers of late-autumn Little Auks, this one off the Brigg at Filey
October also saw the beginning of two winter-long surveys, on both north and south banks of the Humber, focused on shorebirds. Writing now in late January and looking back over the last few months surveying there, the variety in relative abundance and species dynamics has been much more interesting than anticipated, and each visit has seen major changes from the last.

A flurry of Avocets on the Humber
Against a particularly bleak industrial backdrop they may not be the most aesthetically appealing locations, but for the sheer spectacle of shape-shifting shorebird flocks and murmurations, it's pretty special. More here.

Count the Blackwits - an interesting job, trust me!
Hmmm, a very busy autumn, then..... but the last part of the year was busier still - watch this space.

YCN sponsored our Migweek t-shirts - migrants welcome!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review of the Year, 2019 - Part Four

Wilson's Storm-petrel off Cape Clear Island
As the summer wore on, we wrapped up the North York Moors wader surveys, but monitoring work continued with bats, and also Filey's breeding Kittiwakes (my seventh summer conducting this voluntary survey, gauging their breeding productivity here on the cliffs) and Turtle Dove breeding surveys in the North Yorkshire forests (another great voluntary project). By late July, however, it was time to swap the North Sea for the Atlantic, and specifically the rugged shores of Cape Clear Island and County Cork.

Cory's Shearwater off Cape Clear Island
In partnership with Shearwater Wildlife Tours, we (Yorkshire Coast Nature) led a memorable five-day tour in this most beautiful of Irish counties, with three of those days and nights based on the legendary and idyllic Cape Clear, bookended by days exploring the beautful coastline of the Cork mainland.

Unsurprisingly we were fully booked long in advance and, with the local expertise of Niall and a lovely 'support crew' (hats off to Andy the driver, Steve the Bird Obs Warden, and Mary the, well, what doesn't she do on the island?), it was a cracking trip with a great team of clients, fine landscapes, culture, food, people - and some very special birding experiences.

European (left) and Wilson's Storm-petrels 
Dedicated posts written at the time can be found here, here and here  (check out the dolphin videos), but suffice to say, the real stars were out on the waves. We were able to take two boat trips out into the Atlantic, both for several hours and both with memorable results; without the skillful skippering and chumming we'd have been far less successful, however, and it's fair to say we had it locked down, despite the reported lack of of our target seabirds in the area previously.

Sooty Shearwater off Cape Clear
Top of the list from a rarity perspective was Wilson's Storm-petrel, and we'd fantastic, extended views of these little beauties from the Southern Oceans allowing everyone to get to grips with their diagnostic features alongside their European cousins - talking of which, there were, well, a lot of 'em.

Manx Shearwater
Shearwaters gave us many a dramatic fly-by, with Sootys, Cory's and countless thousands of Manxies, Short-beaked Common Dolphins put on many a breathtaking show right beside the boat, an Ocean Sunfish joined us for a while, Arctic and Great Skuas came to investigate.... add to that the wonderful experiences back on the island (Storm-petrel ringing with Steve, seawatches with huge numbers of shearwaters, a great craic in the local pub) and it was the kind of trip that was an absolute dream to lead.

YCN Team Cork 2019, in the garden of our island accommodation overlooking the harbour
Back on the Yorkshire coast, and it was, well, back off the coast and back on the boats, with a series of equally memorable YCN Seabirds and Whales pelagics out of Staithes, a painfully picturesque village a little way up the North Yorks coast. I had the pleasure of leading some of the most exciting and successful trips during the late summer and early autumn, with up to 25 (!) Minke Whales on several occasions, lots of great seabird action (including cory's and Balearic Shearwaters, skuas, terns and plenty more) and many a happy client. (We're booking for this year now - see here if you fancy it).

Another Cory's - this one by the boat off Staithes, North Yorks! 
A major problem for photographing whales on our YCN pelagics is how close they come....
Cetaceans and seabirds ruled the summer both away from home and back in the hood (as they always should), where it was an exceptional season for Bottlenose Dolphins; while occurences have increased in recent years, they're still a big deal to see in the Filey area - until this year, that is, when I lost count of the times I bumped into them on clifftop and beach walks and scans. I managed to get conclusive ID's of several from photos of the dorsal fins, and as in previous years, they belong to the Moray Firth community (they really get around these days).

On dry land, early autumn was fairly muted locally, although waders always provide a distraction, and finding a (very) early Icterine Warbler fresh in in the grass on the end of Carr Naze at the end of July was a nice surpise.

Icterine Warbler, Carr Naze, 29th July
Greenshank, East Lea
Common Snipe, Filey Dams
Spoonbill - annual in Filey in small numbers, but rarely do they stick - unlike this one, which stayed for months... 
By then it was time to prepare for the next trip, to Sweden and the mighty Falsterbo Bird Observatory... (part five to follow)

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review of the Year, 2019 - Part Three

April saw the beginning of a long and fascinating season surveying the breeding waders of the North Yorkshire Moors. Again with comrade Rich, we spent a lot of time up on the most remote parts of the moors over the spring and summer months, and by the end of the contract, I'd conducted 54 surveys up there, providing many valuable insights (and some serious exercise)....

We recorded effectively everything, but our target species were European Golden Plover (top), Eurasian Curlew (above), Northern Lapwing (below) and Common Snipe.

As with pretty much any survey - and especially those where you routinely find yourself in remote situations - there was plenty of collatoral to enjoy, from breeding Merlins, to smart Emperor moths and gorgeous Adders (below); of the latter, it's impossible to tire of these beautiful beasts, and I had some memorable run-ins with them this summer.

Spring and summer isn't just about surveying birds these days - plenty of late evenings (and a few very early mornings) were again spent looking for and monitoring bats, again as part of Wold Ecology's team. Sites, species and surroundings were rich and varied, and no two nights were the same; some were a real privilege to experience, often involving my personal favourites, Brown Long-eared Bats.

Birding on the coast was sketchy, regarding both time in the field and relative returns; long gone are the days when I could justify numerous day-long shifts sniffing out everything with feathers and a pulse in spring (and to be honest, that's no bad thing), but I'm still fortunate enough to be able to reshuffle some of my workload and maximise at least some time in the field when the conditions look promising. It's all relative, I know, and yes, I do appreciate how lucky I am...

Inkeeping with the last few years, I spread the spring birding love more holistically and satisfyingly again this spring (the days of über-insular patch-induced mania are also happily long gone), with Filey, Flamborough and elsewhere within realistic striking distance on the table for those generally at-a-premium days of seasonal promise. I even twitched a few decent birds within a half hour or so - what have I become? (A little less insane is the correct answer, in case you were wondering...).

In truth there were't too many days that hit the spot on the coast, but a couple spring to mind - a fine day of quality and quantity at Flamborough in mid-May, and another there right at the end of the spring migration season were particularly enjoyable; one of several Wrynecks and Black-headed Bunting (both pictured above) being two species featuring in the above links, as well as a decent sprinkling of Redstarts this spring (below).

As well as all the above, in May I stepped down as (volunteer) Communications Officer for Filey Bird Obs. After a productive seven years or so at the helm and a lot for us to be proud of, ultimately it's important to realise when those efforts are better directed elsewhere to make the most of those spare hours and skills. A more detailed summary can be found here.

More importantly, I got to spend my wonderful wife's 40th in the Czech Republic with her and my lovely in-laws - and I didn't even take the bins and camera! New-found levels of perspective and self-control abound....

(Part Four to follow)