Champions of the Flyway!

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Review Of The Year, 2021 - Part Two

Male and female Stonechats, which successfully bred along the North Cliff here at Filey this year 

This post covers April, May and June 2021. For Jan, Feb & Mar, see here; for later in the year, watch this space... 

If the first quarter of the year was a gentle waltz with a glass of port, then the second was an almost constant Charleston with a rolled-up tenner and a hand mirror.... But first, in haste to bang out the last post I forgot to mention the long-distance, trans-Saharan summer visitors that made it back at the end of March; nothing unusual about that, of course, but against the backdrop of ongoing uncertainty, their always joy-giving properties were amplified even more again this spring. Wheatears and hirundines have never mattered quite so much....
Some of the 12 Wheatears which materialised in the last of the light on 30th March in a single ploughed field here in Filey. It's the little things.... 

So, onto April, May and June. The work calendar was rich, varied and fully loaded: we conducted Breeding Wader Surveys across the North York Moors from mid-April to mid-June; the Humber surveys continued throughout (and indeed intensified at several sites); happily, guiding recommenced, with a series of my Spring Birding Discovery Days, and also group tours; and there was lots of 'recreational' birding inbetween... so it was basically wall-to-wall birding of one form or another right through until early summer, and thank the gods for that.
Ring Ouzel - great to find plenty of breeders up on the moorland edge 

It was a huge pleasure to get back onto the North York Moors for another intensive survey project, this time involving breeding waders at mid-and lower levels. Following on from our Upland Breeding Wader Surveys in the spring and summer of both 2018 and 2019, this year's surveying was equally extensive and fruitful, and again incorporated recording not just waders, but all the Red- and Amber-listed breeding species we could find.


These included Merlin, Tree Pipits, Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers (below) on territory, Dippers and Grey Wagtails along the rivers, and the study species themselves (with breeding Snipe, Curlew, Lapwings, Woodcock and Oystercatcher all in the mix), and there was always plenty to enjoy, in often idyllic surroundings.
A male Merlin up on the edge of the moors - a rare and threatened breeding species, and always a buzz to find new territories 

The dynamic of the Humber surveys changed with the season, with species diversity and abundance reflecting the ebb and flow of migration. As always, witnessing the spectacle of so many birds swirling over the mud and feeding up before their onward journeys north was a privilege.

Lapwing chicks - good company on survey days up in the Moors 

Meanwhile, back on the coast.....

My Yorkshire Coast Nature Spring Birding Discovery Days were a huge pleasure to lead, being new for 2020 and booked up well in advance - and after the plague-delayed start to the guiding year, I was straining at the leash to share our amazing local birdlife with our fine YCN clients. We've the choice of multiple venues along the local coastline to maximise the best birding experiences, but most of the tours focused on the mighty Great White Cape of Flamborough - incorporating hotspots across the greater Flamborough Head, from the Outer Head to South Landing, Danes Dyke, Bempton, Buckton, Thornwick and North Landing.
Hoopoe, Flamborough - one of various scarcities that spiced up our Spring Discovery Days 

We enjoyed great birding experiences, from various common migrants, to close-up breeding seabirds and over-shooting scarcities and (whisper it) often pleasant weather, and they're happily now a bolt-on part of the guiding calendar going forwards (and are available here should you wish to join me this spring!). For various reasons (not least increased demand), Rich and I rarely get to co-guide these days, and so it was pleasure to do so for a YCN 'Best of Yorkshire' residential group at the end of May, incorporating many great birds and locations (more here).
Kingfisher, Tophill Low on our YCN 'Best Of' break

Male Western Subalpine/Moltoni's Warbler, Flamborough, 2nd June 

Somewhere in there I managed to fit in some recreational birding, too - and despite the often unhelpful winds and conditions, there were plenty of rewards. As usual, this involved anywhere along the coast within a half hour or so of my base here in Filey; the latter, being the most local of my local patches, was often involved, but regular sessions at Flamborough, Buckton and elsewhere were again the norm.

Early June was, as is so often the case these days, the peak time for rare spring overshoots - and I was fortunate to find a Subalpine Warbler (Western/Moltoni's), a Rosy Starling and a Bee-eater at Flamborough within 24 hours - the latter two within ninety seconds... 


 ... while my nocturnal migration recording (nocmig) at Filey and Flamborough continued to produce scarctities and rarities I couldn't have dreamed of when embarking on this enchanting branch of migration study last year. I'll be addressing 2021's nocmig in more detail in a dedicated post shortly, but, after Stone-curlew and Bittern at on my Filey and Flamborough recorders respectively in the early throes of migration, I could hardly leave out mention here of even more jaw-dropping rewards in the spring proper....


...which included no fewer than three more Bitterns - over Flamborough village on the nights of 23rd and 29th April respectively, and one over my Filey North Cliff recorder on 13th May, bringing the spring total to four... for a barely annual species at either site, amazing and illuminating. But it was another call on that Midas-touched 13th May Filey recording that (when extensively researched and confirmed) really stoppped us in our tracks - an American Golden Plover, the first for Filey

But nocmig headf**ks weren't quite over yet. With migration effectively over by the last week of June, running the recorders was more out of the chance of a overshooting longshot than anything - and so it came to pass, on the night of the 23rd - a Black-crowned Night-heron (the third ever for Filey). Madness - but very, very entertaining madness nonetheless .....


Visible migration at my favoured Muston Sands viewpoint on the curve of Filey Bay was productive early in the spring, while voluntary monitoring of breeding seabirds continued for a tenth year here - 'purposeful birding' as the late great DIMW would have it. 

So, with the benefit of hindsight and the clarity of reflection, it was an absolute stormer of a spring from a local perspective - full-on, rich and varied, with a hatful of self-found gems as extra sparkle. I do enjoy putting together these summaries, sometimes......

Do I mention how the period ended? Or do I save it for the next summary, covering July, August and September? Here's a clue, anyway.....  

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Review Of The Year, 2021 - Part One

Not what you expect when you nip out to pick up your recorder... White-billed Diver, Filey, March 

So how was it for you? Dispiritingly apocalyptic again, except minus the novelty value this time? Same here.... But this isn't the place for adding another series of doom-scroll strokes to your chosen device; instead, it's a place to celebrate the joys of birds and wildlife, from a personal perspective, throughout 2021 - and, plague notwithstanding, there's been a lot to celebrate over the last twelve months.
A local Peregrine enjoying the winter sunshine 

While the beginning of the year was indeed unavoidably under the shadow of the pandemic and its repercussions, it was again a time to feel lucky; lucky to live here, with access to so many birding and nature opportunities on my doorstep and beyond, and lucky that I could continue working in the field, with all my ornithological surveys being lone and remote.
Pink-footed Geese on the Humber - more post-apocalypic visions here 

Ongoing surveys continued on both sides of the Humber and at various sites, and in the evenings, giving plenty of talks wasn't a problem either, with technology as it is; not quite the same as the personal connection of an in-person presentation, but with the silver lining of delivering them with a nice glass of single malt from comfort of my study. All very civilised.
Flurries of Avocets on the south bank of the Humber, March - more on the Humber surveys here 

Local birding here in Filey was entertaining, with the regular species and usual suspects as appreciated as ever - be they Purple Sandpipers and other waders on the Brigg, Great Northern Divers and other wave-dwellers just offshore, or Snow Buntings up on Carr Naze (fortunately a small flock of the latter stuck around over midwinter this year:)

As always, the darkest days delivered a few less predictable treats locally, too, with a wintering Black Redstart in the bay corner, brief visitations from a Slavonian Grebe, Grey Phalarope, Black-throated Divers, a wonderfully tame Little Gull (also in the bay corner, below) and - with a period of particularly bone-chilling and harsh conditions in early February - an impressive influx of Woodcocks.

Sunny days toward the end of February means heading into the forests with the old man to enjoy displaying Goshawks, and this year was no exception; such a treat to have them less than half an hour from the house. Somewhat less expected at the end of February (that's a contender for understatement of the year) - or indeed, at any time of year here up here - is the unmistakable long-call of a Stone-curlew; but that's exactly what my nocturnal recorder picked up on North Cliff on 25th. As an early reward for my local nocmig efforts, it was magical, and surely would be hard to beat as the year spring wore on....


It was while retrieving my recorder a few weeks later - and wandering up onto the cliff for a quick scan, as I often do - that one of the diurnal birds of the year presented itself: a stunning, banana-conked White-billed Diver. Not disappearing distantly over the horizon, but swimming around innocently on the sea below me..... an unforgettable highlight of the birding year, especially when considering Black-throated, Great Northern and Red-throated were also present - a unique full house!
Wintering Black Redstart in the bay corner 

So, on reflection, a productive and entertainingly birdy first part of the year - but it was about to get much better....
Barn Owl, Filey, February 

Part Two to follow soon

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Winter guiding on the Yorkshire coast

Happy clients enjoying close-up Purple Sandpipers in the Filey sunshine 

As of yesterday, my sixth and final Winter Birding Discovery Day of 2021 - and my last tour of 2021 - brought what was a wonderful year of guiding to a close. I'll look back at all the year's guiding adventures in more detail here shortly, but these coastal winter days - only introduced last winter, and then sadly disrupted by plague restrictions - have been a particular pleasure.
More happy faces after (even closer) Snow Buntings

It's a different bag to guiding in other seasons, and a different approach is required; shorter, colder days with a higher chance of less pleasant weather means working even harder than usual to get the most out of them, and it's a challenge I've especially enjoyed, helped in no small part by really lovely, hardy, up-for-it clients.
Sunrise over Scarborough South Bay - not a bad way to start a tour.... 

The locations involved vary, and depend on tides, forecasts, and local knowledge re: where the good birds are; theoretically we've the choice of various productive venues between Bridlington and Ravenscar, but for these tours, we've concentrated on Filey and Scarborough, both of which payed out wonderfully.
Very friendly Sanderlings against the Badlands backdrop of Bay Corner...

The aims of the days include focusing on a suite of iconic winter species against evocative local backdrops, all of which have their own unique stories to tell, and this always involves birds which I'm particularly passionate about; it's also about giving our guests a specialist local insight into where is best and why, as well as plenty of time spent on fieldcraft, ecology, migration, and habitats.
... many enjoying a fish breakfast 

It's easy to forget that locally, some of our most iconic and popular species are almost exclusively winter visitors, or at least easiest to track down in the winter - these include our often wonderfully tame local shorebirds (Purple Sandpiper, Sanderling, Oystercatcher etc), bay-dwellers (Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, grebes, Shags, Eiders, Scoters etc), Harbour Porpoises (so much closer and more reliable in winter), and coastal passerines including Snow Buntings and Rock Pipits.
Porpoises to the left of me, Peregrine to the right - here I am....

We were often blessed with benign (or even lovely) weather - maybe it's statistically not as likely to be as poor as my pessimistic inner forecaster tells me? - and packed in as much as we could, resulting in effectively dawn to dusk birding; in addition to a lunch break, there were, of course, breaks for hot chocolate and donuts as required....
Turnstone flash mob at Scarborough harbour 

Depending on the tide and therefore access out to the Brigg and Bay, we either began or ended here at Filey, with consistently great results. Divers were a constant (and often close); Purple Sandpipers and Sanderlings entertained us on each day (and were often very close), with other waders including Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Knot, Curlew, Dunlin and more; Great crested Grebes, Eiders, Scoters, Shags, Guillemots, Razorbills and other sea-dwellers bobbed around just offshore; and Snow Buntings - never a given, and often unpredicatable - were very kind indeed, usually to with a metre or two....
Spot the Snow Buntings on Carr Naze 

In stark contrast to the wild, untamed beauty of the bay and Brigg, Scarborough seafront is equally special, and - for a birding and wildlife experience - it's equally unique; where else can you watch porpoises frolicking incredibly close on a sea peppered with various bird species in one direction, under the watchful eye of accommodating Peregrines in another, and Turnstones running around (literally) at you feet in another, all against the backdrop of the sandstone cliffs, the picturesque harbour, the funfairs and the castle?
The end of some great days - moonrise at Scarborough.... 

Other excursions can be often be factored into our Winter Days - these included calling in to see the Med Gulls at Holbeck, trying for Jack Snipe at a specific spot in Filey (both successful), and having fun with our thermal imager at dusk at the Dams (and we can adapt plans on the day to cater for requests and latest news) I'm back out in Jan and February, and if you want to join me, book here!
.... and sunset at Filey

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Nocmig Update - Autumn '21 (Filey)

Jack Snipe - a new addition to the nocmig list in November (see soundfile below) 

It's been a while since my last Nocmig round-up (see here) - which kind of tells its own story - but in the interests of consistency, here's a summary of results from my Filey recordings over the autumn, covering September to November inclusive. I ran the AudioMoth up on the North Cliff for most of the period (although I lost a couple of weeks due to tech/human errors); in contrast, it took until late September for the gulls to reach anything like tolerable levels on my street, and so recordings from the study window were confined to more promising nights in October when I happened to be around (totalling 14 through the month).


(Recordings are best listened to with headphones) 

North Cliff 
After an encouraging start to the autumn migration season through August, pickings were pretty slim in September, with low diversity and abundance. Waders continued to provide the majority of registrations, with regular Curlews, Oystercatchers, Dunlins and Golden Plovers, plus the odd Common Sandpiper and Whimbrel. Once again, all three tern species put in appearances at the start of the month; towards the end of the month, meanwhile, the first passerines were recorded in the shape of Song Thrush, Robin and Skylark, and the welcome yapping of many Pink-feet (from 23rd) was topped only by the beautiful trumpeting of Whooper Swans (on 29th).


October was also pretty quiet overall, with most nights registering only a few, expected species; there were exceptions, however, with eleven migratory species on the night of the 8th, the most numerous of which was Dunlin, with flocks and individuals throughout the night. A late Arctic Tern on 10th coincided with diurnal records around the same time, while the first of several strong Redwing influxes occurred on the following night (321), followed by 119 on 12th. The latter part of the month was a little more productive, with a better showing of expected late autumn migrants (including thrushes, Curlews, Golden Plovers, and Whooper Swans), but the big event was the regularity and huge numbers of Pink-footed Geese - many flocks on many nights, often consisting of many, many birds.  


Despite only running for 12 nights (due to poor weather and tech/human error), November was arguably the most prodctive period (in parallel with last year). Small numbers of expected late autumn species were the norm, but replaced by far better results and some excellent nights when the conditions finally became encouraging. Consistently double-figure counts of Redwings became 419 on 13th, a night which also featured 112 Blackbirds, a surprising 34 Fieldfares (by far the least vocal of the thrushes on nocmig), Dunlins, Song Thrushes and a bonus small flock of Black-tailed Godwits.


The next two nights were also pleasingly productive (again because of, finally, beneficial conditions), with 255 Redwings and 121 Blackbirds among a good cast on 14th, and an even better selection on 15th (including Golden Plovers, Snipe, Skylark, Wigeon, thrushes and huge number of Pink-feet), headlined by my first nocmig Jack Snipe, a species I've been hoping for for some time. So, a late flurry and happy ending to what was a pretty muted nocmig period overall over North Cliff.


Filey Town 
As mentioned, noise pollution (gulls and humans), conditions (mostly lousy) and availability (I was away for much of the period) were big factors in the reduction of nocmig recordings from the study window this autumn, but even so, there were pleasing results. Wildfowl included lots of Pinks, a few Whoopers and my first Common Scoters in many months, passerines included Dunnock and Skylark, local owls were represented by nightly Tawny rackets and yet more evidence of Barn Owl crosstown traffic, and a good arrival of Redwings on 11th (197) preceded the best count of the autumn on 12th, with 542, and 85 Blackbirds, among other migrants.


Full nightly counts available hereFlamborough autumn nocmig summary to follow (when I've gone through seven weeks of recordings....!)

Tuesday, December 7, 2021


Auk sp (left) with Common Guillemot (right), Filey, 28th November 2021. From this photo, subjectively, the bird in question is: bigger, and much more bull-necked than the accompanying Common Guillemot; shows white flanks, which clearly extend well up onto the upperparts at the wing-base (a supposedly nigh-on diagnostic feature of Brünnich's, and also Razorbill, which it isn't); has clearly protruding feet at the rear, and - in direct comparison to the right-hand bird - a obviously more rotund, 'rugby-ball' profile overall. Note that the bird is in full or nearly full breeding plumage - neither a plus nor a minus (with at least one sum-plum Brünnich's reported up the coast the same day, but loads of Commons exhibiting this plumage too). Compare with photos of mooted and even seemingly 'accepted' Brünnich's Guillemots on social media and the bird news services websites in recent days - based on one or two images, you could argue this is in some respects at least as good a call (with better quality images) than some of the latter; but how 'acceptable' would it be, especially if based on one or two 'favourable' images and a solid description? 

As many birders (especially those with access to the east coast) will be more than aware, there's been an unprecedented number and/or claims of Brünnich's Guillemots from coastal watchpoints in recent days, almost all involving that most controversial of sightings, the seawatch fly-by; particularly controversial in this case, where historical fly-by claims of this species are still very much the subject of ongoing debate.
Arguably looking bigger, darker above, and showing more of a rugby ball profile than its companions

More rarity-focused readers will have seen the various photographs of 'Brünnich's Guillemots' - either claimed as definite, mooted as possible/probable, and/or seemingly judged as acceptable - online over recent days, too, which is why I thought this post might be of interest. I'm no expert, but having done a hell of lot of seawatching over the years here on the Yorkshire coast, I'm acutely aware of how many interesting (sometimes very interesting) fly-bys one has to let go - seawatching, more than any other birding discipline, isn't for the faint-hearted where potential rarities are concerned, being inately infused with the regular frustrations of probables, could-have-beens and likely-weres.
Again, overall the left-hand bird looks bigger, darker, and - subjectively - somewhat blunt-ended / stubby-billed. There's a limited amount of dark colouring on the otherwise pale underwing, which could easily be interpreted either way - a plainer underwing is a percieved feature of Brünnich's, and yet a cursory web search of them in flight reveals plenty with dark feathering and shadowing within this range. 

With that in mind, I thought it might be worth posting about a bird I photographed last week here at Filey - on the day of the majority of Brünnich's claims, the 28th November. I was in the middle of a lengthy seawatch, with the species very much on my radar (following birds in the eastern North Sea, and then Norfolk, in preceding days), when a bulky, dark, stubby-looking auk rounded the Brigg, heading north with two winter plumage Common Guillemots - and so I grabbed the camera, found them in the viewfinder and fired off a series of shots, shown here (unedited but for cropping).
Still arguably looking big, and rotund, in comparison with its buds, and showing extensive white on the flank sides up onto the upperparts. But, is the bill looking a bit long and spiky? It could easily just be a photographic anomaly, however - but then, so could several other pro- features mentioned.... 

Not the greatest of views, but not the worst, either, particularly of a fly-by seabird, and I umm'ed and aah'ed over it throughout the watch; back home, I reviewed the photos on the big screen, and still felt uneasy enough to send them to various birding friends for their opinions. The replies were equally inconclusive overall, with some stating it looked good for Brünnich's, some thinking it was better for Common, and others on the fence.
Still big and dark, still notably pot-bellied, but what about the bill - or at least the (potentially misleading) photographic impression of it? Subjectively too 'pointy'? But, if the photo were of poorer quality, the bill would likely appear less defined, and therefore more Brünnich's-like. Insert shrugging emoji here (and after all the captions, for that matter)

The relevant features are, subjectively, addressed in the photo captions above and below, but the bird (and the photos) highlight various questions as to what constitutes an acceptable fly-by Brünnich's Guillemot, from this (or any) period: How many photos are required, at what level of quality and at what kind of distance? From how many angles? Should they involve comparable species? There are other issues involved, too: how much of an advantage is it to have a (tough to ID, often brief, often in far-from-ideal conditions) seawatching fly-by like a putative Brünnich's multi-observed (as opposed to single-observed)? Some would say it's important; others, not so much, especially when factoring in the potential conformation bias of a communally exciting moment. And what about the even more loaded and fraught issue of non-photographed claims? How much emphasis is weighted towards the quality of the description, or the reputation of the observer(s), or the length / distance of the views?
Also worth pointing out - there were plenty of examples of darker, 'Northern' Common Guillemots on the move during the day and indeed week - lots of variation evident within that species

A minefield at best, and a shitstorm at worst - who'd be on a rarities committee when all these claims come up for assessment....?! Note that I'm not doubting or judging any recent (or historical) claims or sightings, but just throwing this in the mix for reference. Note also that I'm lucky enough to have already found a Brünnich's locally, in Filey Bay eight years ago - at the time, the first live record for mainland England (see here) - so there's zero envy agenda at play here....!
I'm sticking with you.....

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Spurn, Nov '21

Short-eared Owl - amazing views on many days

After our hugely enjoyable and successful week's guiding there in late October (see here), we returned to Spurn for another five day stint soon after - Rich again with a week-long group, and I with a series of five Birding Discovery Days, for different clients (a maximum of four) each day.
Whooper Swan - the quintessential late autumn migrant wonderbird

Planned (and fully booked) for the same time last year (but beaten by plague restrictions at the last minute), this became our first YCN November adventure at what is arguably the UK mainland's premier Bird Observatory - and what a memorable week it was.
Woodcock - the other quintessential late autumn migrant wonderbird

There are many advantageous factors involved when guiding at Spurn, but a couple of the most important ones are: how every day is genuinely unique - and always productive - depending on conditions, and how great it is to be able to take in the key locations on foot, without having to drive.
One of thousands of Blackbirds spirlling up into the ether at dusk, beginning the next stage of their migrations

With the invaluable help and assistance of various friendly locals, we're able to maximise every hour of daylight to get the most out of all the nearby sites and habitats, which is an essential part of my Birding Discovery Days generally - as well as great birding, a unique day in the field and a lot of skill-sharing, they provide an insider's crash course into the places involved. So whether it's Spurn, Flamborough, Filey or any other of our chosen locations on the Yorkshire coast, our clients leave with 'the knowledge' of exactly where to go, when, why and how.
The most underrated of scarcities - a stunning Siberian Chiffchaff (the first bird I found after breakfast one morning as I walked out of the Obs...)

We had wildly different conditions every day - from becalmed and mild, to bone-chilling and blustery, to stormy and wet, to sunny and clear - and, as mentioned, the real beauty of the place is how every day provided a unique migration experience. Regarding those visceral, first-hand migration memories, there are too many instances to list here, but it's worth pointing out that fortune favours the brave: the days that looked (and felt!) most challenging on the forecasts often provided the most thrilling birding experiences.
Whoopers in the last of the light over Kilnsea Wetlands

My point? There is no such thing as a 'normal', generic day on our Birding Discovery Days at Spurn - each is unique, and each is always full of the wonders of migration.
Bramblings - fantastic numbers arrived during the week, including many in off the sea (as with this flock)

If you'd like to join me in autumn '22, our dates are fresh up on the website - book here and I look forward to seeing you!
Woodcock, Curlew, incoming Redwings
Siskin, Long-eared Owl and Brambling - all in off the North Sea
Dusky Warbler, which turned up in the net as Paul was giving our group a ringing demo!
Short-eared Owl, Snow Bunting
Brent Geese, including the local celebrity blonde bombshell
Spotted Redshank at Kilnsea wetlands