Champions of the Flyway!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Swift Redemption - Filey, 28th June 2020

With Crossbills and Siskins pouring out of the northern forests, as well as various other highlights including a point-blank Honey-buzzard arriving in off, Cuckoos, a Turtle Dove and more all gunning south (see last few posts), it's been a memorable week for visible migration at my Muston Sands watch-point here in Filey, and on the North Yorkshire coast generally. But even with all this competition, there's only really ever been one clear winner in the migration phenomena stakes....

... and it all came to a dramatic, unforgettable climax the morning before last (28th). With a moderate south-westerly and cloud forecast, it looked promising for the aforementioned irrupting finches to be concentrated along the coast, as they had been on several other exceptional mornings this week. There were a few, as it turned out, but they were barely noticed among the real stars of the show.

An 0340hrs alarm may sound a little harsh but, in order to catch the vast majority of activity at the moment, being in position for around dawn (even a little before) is essential - and my, how it's been worth it. It would've been for the views and the sunrises alone, but so much avian activity had been crammed into those first hours, even minutes, that to turn up even a little late to the party is to miss most of the action.

Walking the short distance to my vantage point a good 15 minutes before dawn, I looked up to see the bizarre sight of tight flocks of birds heading purposefully south in the gloom - amazingly, they were the first Swifts of the morning. But they were far from the last.

For the next four hours or so, we (with Keith a few kilometres south at Hunmanby Gap) were treated to an unprecedented, mind-blowing show of East coast migration at its most thrilling and visceral. Across a southbound flyway that stretched, variably, a good kilometre or so inland to my left and as far out to sea to my right, the barrage was seemingly endless; even better, the majority headed straight for me, with the shelter and height of the cliff providing a focal point for many incoming birds. Some even came within touching distance, almost brushing my cheek, and I could feel and hear the whoosh of their wings above and beyond the blustery wind.... magical.

In those four hours, we clocked a minimum of 16,500 birds.... Incredible, and the stuff of dreams for North Yorkshire vismiggers; a huge count, even by the previously unattainable standards of famous Swift bottlenecks like Spurn and Gibraltar Point, let alone our modest Filey bay VPs. That we had such a uniquely large cut of the cake was a privilege we'll not forget anytime soon, but why did it happen, and why did we score so highly?

Basically, a perfect storm, literally and metaphorically. The theory is that the majority of these birds are second-year, non-breeding birds, which effectively roam the UK and Europe in summer en masse, riding storm fronts and, with conditions conspiring, gathering into intense, narrow 'bands' of birds. With the prevailing weather systems 'trapping' an unusually high concentration of Swifts above us, the ideal circumstances then followed - in our case, those brisk south-westerlies and overcast skies focusing all the action along our stretch of coast as they battled south. The time of year is also a factor - late June and early July is the peak period for these huge counts at those aforementioned bottlenecks, and so if if were ever to happen to here too, then the timing was right....

As with so much associated with these mysterious beasts, there's still a lot of conjecture and a lot to learn, but with technology developing rapidly and traking techniques becoming less expensive and more viable, it's hoped we'll find out a lot more in the near future. Either way, magic is magic, even after you find out the techniques behind it....

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Honey-buzzard, Swifts & more - Muston Sands, Filey, 27th June 2020

Another very entertaining morning perched atop the cliff at my Muston Sands watchpoint just south of Filey town, on the high point of the bay's gentle curve.

With cloud and a south-westerly forecast, the hope was for a big push of Crossbills and Siskins - stars of the 'autumn' so far as they continue to irrupt from our northern forests - with the wind ideally nudging them along the coast and the cloud lowering their flight height.

In position for before dawn, it soon became evident that the wind was barely a whisper and the cloud was, well, thick fog, effectively writing off the first hour or so.

But tentatively, gradually, the blanket withdrew and the movements began, with Crossbills and Siskins in good (if not storming) numbers, plus a few waders, gulls, ducks, and other finches and passerines on the move.

But two iconic long-distance migrants stole the show, although there were almost 1500 more of one than the other. The latter number was today's Swift tally, which, while impressive, hardly does justice to the experience - a relentless, joyous torrent of birds zipping past at eye level, above and below, many almost brushing my cheek, and many others way, way out to sea. Ah, Swifts, seriously....

The other, meanwhile, is (over-)represented in these photographs, as it approached along the cliffs from the south (thanks Keith and Will for the early warning) - a breath-takingly smart and accommodating male Honey-buzzard, which performed ridiculously well and even made direct, extended eye contact with me as it glided north.....

A species that is less than annual locally and that I've caught up with maybe three or four times here over the last eight years, but never with such incredible views. Worth getting out of bed at 0340hrs? Absolutely.

Also on the move, pictured - Siskins (first two, below), Crossbills (next two), a vismig Dunnock, and Swifts (lower two).

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Crossbills, Siskins & Swifts - Muston Sands, Filey, 24th June 2020

Counter-intuitive vismig anomalies, anyone? It may be June, and we may have warm, clear high pressure doldrums, but after clocking the first small wave of what looks like a major irruption of Crossbills and Siskins last week, there's been reports of more on the move at local visible migration watchpoints over the last day or two - and so the alarm was set for 0345hrs this morning....

Half an hour later and I was on the clifftop and in position at my chosen vantage point at Muston Sands, watching a perfect sunrise and already down to a t-shirt under a cloudless, soon-to-be blue sky with a light, warm southerly breeze. It was as pleasant as it sounds, but would it be any good for visible migration?

In a word, yes. Within ten minutes or so, the first jip-jip-jips of flyover Crossbills - a flock of 23 to start with! - jolted me out of my haze and had me cupping ears and scanning the skies for sprays of little avian bullets. More soon followed, and then the Siskins, and then the Swifts soon kicked in - and with a few exceptions, it was all about these three iconic vismig species for the next four hours.

Unlike what we're more used to autumn - ones, twos and small groups under leaden skies and into a stiff south-westerly - Crossbills and Siskins were on the move in impressive, chattering parties of up to 40 at a time, while Swifts were a beautiful, constant trickle of low-flying horseshoes, often close enough to hear the woosh of their wings and look briefly but exhilaratingly straight into those big brown eyes.....

Anyway... so by 0820hrs, the final scores were a mighty 304 Crossbills (three times the previous Filey record), 412 Siskins and 636 Swifts (and some half-decent back-up, too - see here for full counts), and while the former had pretty much dried up an hour or so previously, irregular pulses of both the latter were still on the move.

But, with breakfast due (to be followed shortly by a swim in the sea with the Mrs), I headed home with the teu of Siskins way up in the ether as a soundtrack and swifts still scything by at head height and below. Crappy life, eh.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Carr Naze Cuckoo, 22nd June 2020

Up and out onto the clifftop early this morning (as as been the case for more times than I can count in recent weeks), and a resplendent Carr Naze was bathed in sunshine above the sparkling bay; seemingly nothing doing bird-wise however until an unfamiliar, short, sharp, buzzing call swirled around in the wind. Finch, bunting maybe?

After frantically scanned the skies to no avail, I glanced at the stone interp sign next me - the culprit revealing itself as a just fledged, juvenile Cuckoo....

... with a Meadow Pipit parent in close attendance. I managed a good minute or two alone with them until human disturbance inevitably arrived, and after pondering recently how I've not actually seen a Cuckoo yet this year, I left feeling very lucky to get this one-off experience on my morning wander.

Because of their notorious ecology, Cuckoos often get a bad rap, but they're incredible birds in many different ways - not least their epic migrations. There are various projects on the go uncovering their secrets, but I'd recommend having a look here at Terry's fantastic Beijing Cuckoo Project - prepare to be amazed....

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 our house here in the middle of Filey 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, amounting to about six hours of usable material every night (before the gulls and dawn chorus bring the curtain down).

To my amazement, not one night 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 only those species definitively on the move overhead in the night-time proper. Even nights with strong winds, rain, particularly deafening and near-continuous gull noise and other limiting factors registered returns.

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 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 was 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 no fewer than 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 registered, 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 as, even more excitingly, a Quail quip-quip-quiped over the rooftops... Two iconic and very different migrants famed for their long-distance travels, 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 in this way. Not practical on a regular basis, but very productive when possible .....

As expected, activity is steadily reducing as the spring migration window closes, and recent nights have been quiet (although still including surprises, like the flock of Sandwich Terns for example); it may be that this week signals 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.