Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Last Snows of 2020

A last walk of 2020 on Carr Naze here in Filey, the last bright rays of winter sunshine, and the last birds to appear - three beautiful Snow Buntings, ultra-tame, charismatic, and a perfect bookend to the year. Hope it's a better one for you, wherever you are.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Review Of The Year, 2020 - Part Three

Summer plumage Red Knot, back from the Arctic in a flash of rust

Part one is here, and part two here - part four to follow soon 

So despite everything, spring was, from a birding perspective, actually really productive, enjoyable and wonderfully theraputic - but with such a rip-roaring finale at the end of June, it was only to be expected that July would, as usual, see a natural calming of proceedings. Right?
That cat hair on your screen towards the lower right of the photo has a wingspan of over two metres.... 

Wrong! When news broke of a (the) Black-browed Albatross having returned to Bempton Cliffs on the afternoon of the 2nd, I was at my desk, working; thirty seconds later I was in the car, and a few minutes after that, legging it along Carr Naze here in Filey. Not Bempton, like most others, but - after catching up with this very bird there a few years ago - I instead decided to gamble on the (hugely) longer odds of connecting with it on the most local of my local patches...
A big risk, but I stuck to my guns, and long story short, after a nerve-wracking, stay-on-target 90 minutes, Ana and I had memorable views as it sailed lazily across the bay, past the Brigg and out to sea; I even managed some shooting-at-nothing record shots, which are simultaneously the very worst and best pictures I think I've ever published here or elsewhere... For the full, over-excited story from at the time, see here and here.

   

 Bottlenose Dolphins bow-riding with us (stick with it to the end)... 

Our Yorkshire Coast Nature Seabird and Whale Adventures have grown increasingly popular in recent years, and this season - no doubt through a combination of lockdown lifting, lack of international travel options, and a general hunger for life-affirming nature fixes - they (and all our other local wildlife tours) went through the roof, to the point where we could've booked them all many times over.

 

  ... and Minke Whales provoking beautiful reactions 

And of course, the wildlife didn't disappoint. I had the pleasure of leading the many of pelagics this year for many lovely clients, and we'd the company of Bottlenose Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises on various occasions and a wide variety of seabirds, many offering close-up photo opps for our clients; but to be honest, it's the whales that usually steal the show, and the Minkes again performed admirably on the majority of our trips.
Caspian Gull, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters - a few of the many seabird highlights on our YCN trips this year
Bottlenose Dolphins in Filey Bay - a regular sight from dry land in the summer months 

And as July wore on, so the seasonal opportunities to enjoy cetaceans from dry land increased - Minkes, Harbour Porpoises and (especially) Bottlenose Dolphins were on view from the shoreline here in Filey (above and below), with the latter species particularly prevalent, and increasing in numbers and sightings every year.
Basking Shark in the bay - a very rare visitor that unfortunately didn't make it any further 

The lifting of restrictions inevitably also saw an unprecedented flood of visitors to the coast, however, and with the pleasant weather, Filey was (understandably) swamped; so we did what we usually do in the height of summer - while others head to the coast, we head inland, especially to the forests.
We have the luxury of beautiful, wildlife-rich and effectively deserted 'secret' spots within a half hour's drive, and we made the most of them, wiling away many long summer afternoons with Goshawks, Dippers, Redstarts, Honey-buzzards, Kingfishers, Crossbills (above and below) and more for company. Spoiled, I know.
Early autumn migration moves up a gear in mid-July, particularly where shorebirds and concerned, and as usual I spent time down on the Brigg and especially at local wetlands (often during / after favourable conditions, notably storms). There was plenty of action to enjoy, including a memorable flock of 63 summer plumage Black-tailed Godwits that dropped in in front of me at the Dams (a local record) and a smart Temminck's Stint at East Lea (I seem to get lucky finding this species locally, with a handful at both Filey and Flamborough in recent years).
Temminck's Stint at East Lea
Dunlin, Ruff and Redshank at the Dams

 

A few of the Black-tailed Godwits that illuminated the Dams
Down on the Brigg and the unpredictable, transient joy of tern congregations provided some fine sessions, notably including three Black Terns among hundreds of congeners in mid-August -
- which is when the first real waves of long-distance passerine migrants are hoped for, at least with favourable weather conditions. Despite the crowds (and also lack of access to quieter hotspots), classic species including Willow Warblers, Whinchats and Pied Flycatchers were all on the move:

September became increasingly busy, with the resumption of our Humber Bird Surveys, the continuation of our YCN Pelagics and the beginning of my YCN Autumn Migration Specials - the latter all happily booked up well in advance and spent guiding small teams of clients around the best of the day's migration action on the coast. Flamborough was, as ever, particularly productive, and we had some excellent days in the field there and elsewhere (see, for example, here).  

Red-backed Shrike - one of many highlights on our Autumn Migration Specials

Long-planned trips further afield were cancelled one by one, and so much-needed five-day getaway with the Mrs to North Wales - specifically Anglesey, and a static caravan air BnB in the middle of a field - in September was wonderful. We spent much of it exploring the hidden corners of the island, as well as two leisurely, long, oooh-and-aaah soundtracked drives through Snowdonia and a sunny day at Portmeirion. Birding was largely as collateral, but did include many Choughs and Ravens, plenty of Greenland Wheatears and a smart adult Rosy Starling:
Snowdonia - yep, it really is this beautiful.... 

Looking back over this period now - ie July, August and September - it conjures many memories of relief and reprieve (however temporary), and of just being grateful to work, bird and play in a manner that looked unlikely even a month or so previously; sacrifices were relatively few and manageable, and seem increasingly irrelevent when reviewing what was a great three months of keeping it local, enjoying good weather, spending a lot of time doing things I love with good people, and jumping in the sea at any given opportunity....
Midsummer at Bempton - when it's just you, the Mrs, and half a million seabirds....

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Review Of The Year, 2020 - Part Two

 

Common Swift - a star bird in any year, but in 2020? Read on.... 

For all the fear and loathing in the air during the spring, I was acutely aware of how fortunate I was to be marooned out here in our little corner of the North Yorkshire coast - for general wellbeing, and of course, for birding (rarely, if ever, mutually exclusive). Living in Filey has its drawbacks and the sacrifices are many, but as the plague took hold, I'd never been more grateful for living somewhere with such easily accessed habitats, wildlife and migration-related kicks.
A juvenile Long-tailed Tit, born and raised during lockdown (hence badass expression)

Existential, health and societal anxieties aside, Lockdown 1.0 provided an opportunity to adapt and get creative with my spring birding (and the luxury of spare time in general), and to rediscover the joys of full-on local patch immersion. In many ways, this worked out very much for the best, and as is so often the case, limitations can be advantageous if you look at them from the right perspective....
A local Tawny Owl 

After a promising start to the early spring at my recently-favoured visible migration point of Reighton Sands - Woodlark, Hooded Crow, Red Kite and other decent returns - access soon became impossible, it being via a holiday camp which was shut down as lockdown began. Fortunately, plan B was still very much open for business and arguably just as productive - Muston Sands, the spot I favoured for some years before experimenting and casting the net wider. It being no more than a twelve-minute walk from my front door (south along the seafront), I spent many hours there during the spring, enjoying a seriously productive, hugely enjoyable season in the process.
Common Cranes - always a huge buzz to pick up on vismig watches, however distant, and especially when arriving in off the sea 

I put in a fair few early (and some late) morning sessions there between late March and early July, which immediately began to pay out handsomely. April began with a Common Crane high and in off the sea on 4th (later enjoyed by birders further up the coast, as with various vismig highlights in spring), and then got even better on 6th, when a Red-rumped Swallow bulleted by - formerly a nemesis bird locally, now a beautiful part of the family.... more on these sessions here and here.
Red-rumped Swallow - photo courtesy of Keith at the Gap, where it thankfully put in an appearance barely a minute later
Commoner species - including finches, hirundines, pipits, larks, wagtails, thrushes, plus various shorebirds and wildfowl - were in full flow when conditions were favourable, and the scarcer bonuses kept on coming: a further two Cranes (similarly high in off and north-west) on 15th, and over the next few weeks, multiple Marsh Harriers (above), several Red Kites, Osprey, pulses of trans-Saharan migrants and a wide spectrum of other diurnally-migrating species to enjoy.
Wildfowl were often a feature during vismig, including scarcer species like this male Goosander 

All more than enough reward overall for a season confined to the immediate area - but unexpectedly, the best was still to come.....
Crossbills coasting south in the pre-dawn light at Muston Sands

The last two weeks of June were about as good - actually, significantly better - than it's ever been for sheer migration drama and spectacle in the spring / early summer locally, and it was all about the overhead flow at Muston Sands. Ridiculously early starts resulted in ridiculously wonderful vismig unfolding before our eyes, and while there was plenty of highlights to enjoy (including some scarcer highlights), it was really only about two species - Swifts and Crossbills.
Late spring and early summer can often see substantial movements of Swifts, especially given the right conditions, which are thought to involve mainly younger / non-breeding birds (huge numbers of which are present in UK and European airspace at this time of year); three- and occasionally four-figure counts here in the Filey area in late June and early July are generally what we'd hope for, often along or preceding storm fronts. From my Muston Sands viewpoint, I'd a few good counts as the month wore on - 600 on 19th, 852 on 20th, 636 on 24th, 1500 on 27th - but nothing could prepare us for the main event.....

   

 A minute's taste of one of the standout highlights of 2020 - and it went on for hours and hours.... 

It's hard to describe the events of the morning of the 28th without sliding into hyperbole, but my post of that day, and the above video clip, hopefully provide a brief insight into the thrill of watching the 16,500 that whipped past us in the five and half hours from 0410 to 0950hrs that morning.... as you might expect, it smashed local records by a long way, and it was a real pleasure to share it with good friend and vismig legend Keith C just a couple of km south at the Gap.
 
That same epic morning also provided a whole host of other species on the move, with scarcer highlights including a Turtle Dove bulleting through beneath me along thre undercliff, a Cuckoo close-up at head height, a Hobby, and 62 Crossbills....
62 Crossbills - great count, right? In any other year, absolutely - in fact it would've been exceptional here, where most are recorded in the autumn, and any - even ones and twos - are considered a bonus. With droves reported flooding out of the forests, however, we were hopeful of some coastal action if the conditions and the timings conspired. After a few handfuls on previous mornings, my first notable count came on 19th, with 22 logged; but a four-hour stint on 24th (from 0420hrs) resulted in a record-breaking 304 coasting south along the cliffs, with 412 Siskins and hundreds of Swifts...
A more in-depth look at that session can be found here, but suffice to say, it was a thrill, of which there were many during this usually doldrumy, end-of-the-season period here on the coast. As mentioned there were plenty of bonuses, and one of the best was the beautful, chocolate-barred male European Honey-buzzard that drifted in off the sea and nonchalantly right over my head on 28th....
Local 'regular' birding was similarly enjoyable. After the first five years of purposely blinkered and increasingly tail-chasing dedication to the local patch here at Filey, I've (wisely) relaxed not only my approach to birding but to any arbritary boundaries involved over recent years - hence, a generally more enjoyable and rounded birding and wildlife experience has been the standard. Lockdown, however, meant a forced temporary revisiting of my former, more obsessive practices, and - as a temporary stop-gap - it was more than fine. Spring is an erratic and unpredictable beast here, and most of my notable returns were via vismig (above) or nocmig (below), but it was good to slot back into regular circuits and routines.
European Nightjar drying off in a cave entrance (!) in the bay corner in June
 
Short-eared Owls - a good spring passage locally for this species
Juvenile Common Cuckoo on Carr Naze 

And then, of course, there was nocturnal migration recording, or Nocmig. There's way too much to talk about (and way too many highlights) to fit into this post, and so I'll be posting a seperate Nocmig 2020 summary shortly, but with lockdown taking hold, dusting off an old hand-held sound recorder, jamming it into the crack of my open study window and pointing it into the back alley here in downtown Filey was one of my easiest, and yet most profoundly game-changing, decisions of the year. (You can read about April's highlights here, and May's here).
Barn Owl at Flamborough Lighthouse during early morning Breeding Bird Surveys there
Spring waders on the Brigg (above - Purple Sandpiper, below - Turnstone, Common Sandpiper and a photobombing Purp)
I was also fortunate enough to be able to work (albeit at a reduced rate) during lockdown, with a season of Breeding Bird Surveys to conduct across Flamborough Head. They were, as you might expect, an absolute pleasure, heightened by near-deserted locations and almost entirely undisturbed surveying sessions. Collateral on my circuits included early Grasshopper Warbler, Firecrest, Channel Wagtail and others, as well as a quick diversion for a rather smart Brown Shrike, just a couple of hundred metres from one of my plots....
A male White Wagtail I found on territory on the southern edge of the town late in the season 

So, for the (small) sacrifices necessary to keep it (very) local throughout the spring, it was a memorable and indeed record-breaking season here in Filey.....
... and a few days later and it'd get a lot better still.
A local Peregrine checking out the vismig 

Part 3 to follow soon.