Champions of the Flyway!

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.