Champions of the Flyway!

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Bramblings, Wykeham Forest - 31st March '24

Quick stroll (actually slow stumble, after an 18km run yesterday, but that's another story) around Wykeham with the Mrs late morning, and bumped into this amazing flock of 380+ Bramblings - there's been a large flock locally for some weeks, but its ranks have swelled even further, and it's a hell of a sight (and sound). Also 50+ Yellowhammers, lots of Chaffinches, Linnets etc in the same area - quite a spectacle!

Friday, March 29, 2024

Review of the Year, 2023 - October!

Snow Bunting, Carr Naze 

So, it may seem a little self-indulgent, but this post - part of a series summarising 2023's birding highlights - deals purely with October last year. Why? Well, for a few reasons. Firstly, luckily for me, I spent most of it birding here on the Yorkshire coast - lots of it here in Filey, some of it at Flamborough (mostly guiding), and some of it at Spurn (also guiding). 
Continental Song Thrush on the clifftop 

Secondly, because it was great. I may be biased, and also influenced by the fact I had pretty much the whole month in the field, gratefully lapping up whatever migration was occurring, but it was especially good - rich and varied throughout, with several massive falls and lots of action generally (and a whole host of rarities and scarcities).
Jack Snipe in off at Carr Naze 

Thirdly - and most importantly from a selfish perspective - I pretty much failed to write it up here on the blog at the time. I use these virtual pages primarily as a digital notebook / birding journal to look back on, and the irony of the most special birding times also being the worst of times for documenting them isn't lost on me.... but, with much of it still relatively fresh in my mind and with spring still not quite kicking in yet outside, I'm taking my second chance. 

(Stick with it - it gets better and better.... )
Short-eared Owl arriving in off at Carr Naze 

1st - 6th 
It started reasonably calmly, although birds finally began to arrive (both in off and during vismig sessions) as the south-westerlies eventually, erratically started to abate. Pink-feet were a constant feature, as were good numbers of finches, an increase in e.g. Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs, and a few thrushes, including a Ring Ouzel and an overdue first Redwing on 2nd. 
Freshly arrived Goldcrest on the clifftop 

7th & 8th 
The forecast looked increasingly promising, and by the beginning of the second week, it was game on - despite strong offshore winds here on the coast overnight on 6th/7th, high pressure, lowering temperatures and ideal migrating conditions (after weeks of blocking systems) had facilitated a mass exodus of birds from across Scandinavia and Northern Europe (and beyond), and they were on their way....
Thrushes arrving en masse at Carr Naze 

A frustratingly timed, energy-sapping bout of Covid dictated that slow patrols of the coastal strip - particularly Carr Naze and North Cliff - with similarly slow forays into areas of cover were the order of the days, but as it turned out, pretty much all the action was centred on multitudes of birds arriving in-off and over/into these areas, and I was fortunate to be in pole position throughout.
With a strong south-westerly blowing, my first session here at Filey on the morning of 7th was thus actually pretty quiet, the highlight being a near-breeding plumage Black-throated Diver among many Red-throats, a bit of wildfowl passage and single Wheatear and Redwing on Carr Naze; an almost five hour session in the afternoon, however, was far more like it, and despite the blustery offshore winds, birds were powering through regardless.
Whooper Swans arriving over stormy seas... 

The first push of thrushes - mostly Redwings (1,435) - plus three Jack Snipe, three Short-eared Owls, four Common Snipe, 20+ each of Siskin and Redpoll, Snow and Reed Buntings and more in off, and an increase in migrants (especially Chiffchaffs and Robins) in nearby cover, made for an entertaining session, and the first real arrival of the autumn - with the feeling that much more was on the way.....
... and pitching down in the bay, with Buckton Cliffs as a backdrop 

...which there surely was - but why wait til daytime...? A massive, record-breaking nocturnal arrival of thrushes commenced at around 0240hrs, and continued relentlessly until dawn, and thankfully (despite extreme grogginess) I'd remembered to set the recorder rolling from the study window. For full details of that extraordinary night's nocmig, see here


Here comes the flood.... Redwings, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes arriving over Filey town in the early hours of 8th October 

Simultaneously full of Covid and toddler-on-Christmas-Eve excitement, I resolved to spend all day in the field on 8th, and began with a near six-hour session in the northern coastal area - almost of it enjoying slow patrols of Carr Naze (but also a check of nearby North Cliff and Top Scrub). Birds were arriving constantly from (before) first light, with personal totals of 64 Bramblings, 2435 Redwings, three Short-eared Owls, 120 Song Thrushes, 60 Goldcrests, 24 Dunnocks, 50 Robins, Jack Snipe and three Ring Ouzels, plus a variety of other species in arriving in smaller numbers (Stonechats, Wheatears, Siskins, Snow and Reed Buntings, Chaffinches, Skylarks, Chiffchaffs and many more). A thrill....
One of three Yellow-browed Warblers to arrive in Gristhorpe Bay hedge, early afternoon of the 8th

Birds were on the move over the sea, too, with 335 Wigeon, 45 dark-bellied Brent Geese, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Pintails, Common Scoters, Curlews, 12 Grey Plovers, a late-ish Whimbrel, Arctic Skuas, Common and Sandwich Terns, Shovelers and Pink-footed Geese; plenty to enjoy in all directions....
Great Northern Diver heading into the bay 

.... but after a quick lunch, a change of scene to nearby Gristhorpe Bay, a small area of coastal scrub and hedgerow a little way up the coast. After ruminating on the lack of Yellow-browed Warblers thus far, I was treated to no fewer than three, contacting calling and loosely associating with other, clearly (very) fresh-in and flitting around the clifftop hedgerow. What a joy. 

Another round of the northern coastal area was again productive and full of birds, but the light was seriously starting to fade (and my energy levels with it), and realistically it was a last roll of the die; and so to Arndale, the wooded ravine leading down to the beach, where I've had plenty of luck finding quality birds over the last decade or so.
Survey work continued on both banks of the Humber, which included many thousands of Black-tailed Godwits at Killingholme 

Lots of disturbance made me reconsider (think noisy kids, dogs etc coming back off the beach, on the only narrow track from which to bird - anathema to a tiring, ill, grumpy birder with minutes left on the clock), but there was enough activity up in the canopy to make me stay; although the light was indeed shocking, with everything effectively silhouetted high up in the black and grey, Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs were clearly fresh in and worthy of the last dregs of my attention span.
At which point, something more interesting appeared - high up and always at least partially obscured, but enough to sound the alarm. Craning and straining to piece it together and with the ISO on full to get any kind of plumage features (and trying to block out the screams and barks beside me), the elusive little sprite eventually revealed itself as a Red-flanked Bluetail - Bingo! A fittingly exhilirating end to a memorably wonderful day here in Filey.
9th - 15th 
Things calmed down considerably for the next week, although there was still plenty of classic October action - regular checks of the northern coastal area produced good numbers of fresh-in Robins, Goldcrests, two new Yellow-brows on 9th and a Mealy Redpoll on 11th, while passage over the sea continued with plenty of varied wildfowl, two adult Pomarine Skuas (and 40 Whoopers) on 14th, regular Long-tailed Ducks, and seven Sooty and two Manx Shearwaters on 15th. 
One of, well, many Redwings at Spurn 

16th - 20th
By the (very) early morning of the 16th, it was time to head down the coast for five days guiding at the mighty Spurn Bird Observatory. I'm lucky to have been guiding our Yorkshire Coast Nature autumn birding days there for many years, and it's always a part of the guiding calendar I especially look forward to.


Even when it's quiet birdwise, it's great to be there; but when the stars align, it's as absorbing as you might imagine - which is exactly what happened this year (twice over, with week two also hitting the jackpot - see next post).


Conditions over the five days were variable, with a couple of calm days to begin with, followed by a couple of more blustery ones, and ending on an epic high, with a huge arrival on the final day; the wind direction, however, was favourable throughout, a huge blessing. Prior to that unbounded migration deluge, there was much to enjoy, with a decent flow of incoming migrants (particularly thrushes and finches, plus Goldcrests, Woodcocks, Short-eared Owls and the like), and our YCN clients were in on finding another Red-flanked Bluetail:


A Siberian Lesser Whitethroat was another quality team find:
.... while the last day was just a constant barrage of incoming wonder. Before first light out of the Obs bathroom window I could hear a cacophony of passerine contact calls overhead, and I was outside in the pre-dawn gloom, immediately surrounded by thrushes and finches, including numerous Bramblings and several Hawfinches....


By the time the light began to fade, we'd experienced one of those uniquely east coast days of absolute migration madness, and by the end of the week, my 25 YCN clients (in teams of five each day) had experienced Spurn on top form once again. (Warm thanks to the Obs personnel and the local birding community for making us feel so welcome once again - and if you want to join me this autumn, see here).
Little Gull, bay corner 

20th - 24th 
Returning to Filey, and out in car-shuddering winds on 20th for a look at the roaring sea - a juvenile Pom and 23 Little Gulls the best of it before a retreat was required - before conditions started to abate the following day (21st), when several hours from dawn in the northern coastal area produced a Little Auk south, no fewer than five Short-eared Owls (three in off, two in the Rocket Pole Field), plenty of thrushes and finches and another 12 Little Gulls.
Another session on 21st til dusk was also productive, with a ringtail Hen Harrier in off (above), another Long-tailed Duck (a good autumn for this species here), Dark-bellied Brent and Barnacle Geese (and various ducks) on the move, a new Yellow-brow in Long Lane, at least four Twite with the Carr Naze Linnet flock, and more thrushes and finches arriving. Every day was providing ...
An exhausted Siskin on the cliff side 

 ... and the 22nd was no different, with a few hours in the morning here at Filey surprisingly producing two Common Cranes heading south (a scarce annual migrant, and particularly rare in autumn), more wildfowl on the move, and incoming passerines including small numbers of thrushes, three Lapland and one Snow Bunting, 14 Twite, and Bramblings, Siskins and Redpolls into double figures; more passerines arrived the following day, as well as a Marsh Harrier in off and increasing numbers of inbound Skylarks, while a smart Black-throated Diver was the highlight of a quieter 24th.
Dark-bellied Brent Goose on the Country Park 

25th - 29th
Which was all well and good, but the forecasts had increasingly predicted a perfect storm was brewing - and so it came to pass, to maximum effect, on the 25th. The stars aligned perfectly for the second time in the month, and I was up on Carr Naze before dawn, just as the avian deluge began: floods of thrushes, finches and other passerines, at all heights, in often hundreds-strong, seemingly never-ending squadrons - which continued for hours.
A very damp Goldcrest, having just made it onto the dry land of the clifftop 

It was one of those days that makes you shudder with awe and joy from the first moment of half-light to the last; a relentless, multi-species inbound barrage of migratory mayhem, all magnetised directly to your doorstep patch, and all with effectively no-one else around - just bird after bird after bird, flooding in from over the crashing waves. Almost six hours straight from 0700hrs for the first session was, well, a riot; it's hard to know where to begin, but the thrushes were incredible, and the main components of the deluge - (likely very) low estimates of 11,240 Fieldfares (my highest count here by some distance), 8950 Redwings, 7138 Blackbirds and 1570 Song (and five Mistle) Thrushes provided the constant thrills, with many other species clocking up fantastic totals in such a small area:
Woodcock in the Top Scrub 

Six Waxwings (one, three and two, all in off), 86 Skylarks (all in off), 12 Blackcaps, 75 Goldcrests, three Ring Ouzels, 65 Robins, five Sparrowhawks, 31 Bramblings (mostly in off), a Yellow-brow, a Hawfinch (in off), and an incredible 35 Common (Mealy) Redpolls (24, eight and three) to name but a few. Full eBird checklist here.
Adult male Long-tailed Duck - October was a particularly good month for this species at Filey 

And then there was the afternoon session... .... which kicked off with a vengeance as soon as I arrived. Birds were still flooding in off the sea, and either ditching down onto the wet, grassy plateau of Carr Naze or gunning straight for the nearest available cover on the Country Park. Within minutes, it was clear that Goldcrests were likely to be the stars of the show, with birds buzzing past my feet and tinkling calls emitting from the grass all around me. For the next few hours, they were indeed the headline act of a stellar cast, and I had the unbridled joy of them landing on my legs and arms several times as they stepping-stoned from the cliff edge to more hospitable habitat.... by the end of the session I'd made a conservative estimate of 310, but there were doubtless many more arriving.
Incoming Goldcrest over the bay 

Above me, birds were flowing in, and it was one of those sessions that required plenty of focus to pick out unusual calls and shapes as they gunned inland - and within the throngs of thrushes, Starlings and Skylarks, I managed to nail a Shore Lark, a Snow Bunting, a couple of Ring Ouzels, and plenty more Bramblings, Siskins and other classic late autumn passerines; on the cliffside, a juvenile Wheatear gave me the runaround, and turned out to be a very pale Northern (lightning didn't strike twice, at least not yet).
Shorelark arriving in off at Carr Naze 

The aforementioned nearby cover was dripping with birds, and as well as Goldcrests, thrushes and Robins (at least 65 of the latter), I had the pleasure of a Firecrest, a Yellow-browed Warbler, four more Common Redpolls, eight more Woodcocks and lots of Blackcaps among other species, and the sea was busy, too - lots of wildfowl and waders on the move, and late Arctic and Common Terns passing by. What a incredible, thrilling and joyful day's birding.
Woodcock on the cliffside 

Looking at the weather maps, the excitement wasn't about to stop anytime soon - indeed, if anything, the levels were likely to be ramped up even further, with a dream of an extended easterly channel having opened up from as far away as the central Asian steppe all the way to the North Sea - putting wide-eyed, butterfly-stomached east coast birders like me on red alert for something seriously special; springing out of the front door on 26th, despite the challenging wet and windy conditions, I had a very good feeling.
Snow Bunting on the clifftop 

The usual clifftop loitering and wandering produced plenty of quality - Jack Snipe and Short-eared Owl in off, wildfowl on the move (including Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, Whooper Swans, Pintails and Long-tailed Ducks), Woodcocks nestled into the cliffside grasses (thanks, Zeiss thermal imager!), and a trickle of passerines arriving - before a thorough, patient check through nearby cover before the weather closed in seemed like the best option.
Short-eared Owl, having dropped into the Rocket Pole Field 

Dark, wet conditions were indeed challenging, but the roving feeding flocks of Goldcrests and tits were too tempting to even think about bailing on, and before long I managed to dig out both Yellow-browed Warbler and Firecrest - before a loud, cheery, oddly familiar 'chuwit' stopped me dead in my tracks....

A frantic search of the dark, dripping canopy by following many clear, identical calls later, and - after one of those nerve-shredding runarounds only a potentially rare bird can give you - I'd thankfully, joyfully nailed a classic Hume's (Leaf) Warbler.
A pale, wet Wheatear, in easterlies, at the end of October.... 

A dream find, and one that's been on my finding radar for many years; I've seen plenty in their normal range in Asia, several in Israel, a few in the UK, but finally I'd crossed paths with my own here on the patch. I'd been refreshing my knowledge (particularly calls) of potential eastern vagrants over recent evenings, and so they (including Hume's) were very much fresh in mind, and the homework paid off - as did the persistence, with conditions soon closing in and the rest of the day dominated by rain and wind.
Whooper Swan arriving in off over the bay 

Time for a breather, to soak up the successes of the week? Not likely... with the easterlies (and the influx) continuing, the following day was spent guiding at Flamborough as part of my regular autumn Yorkshire Coast Nature Migration Specials - what timing! 

As a guide, especially when you're focusing on migration and its wonders, these are the kind of days you dream of, and we started in the lighthouse area, soaking up the spectacle - which included a vocal Hawfinch, bucketloads of thrushes including 2450 Fieldfares, Common Redpolls, lots of Bramblings, Chaffinches, Siskins, Goldcrests, and Skylarks - before a clifftop walk over to North Marsh. Where, happily, the recently-arrived Red-headed Bunting put on a great show, with a supporting cast of Marsh Harrier, Twite, Short-eared Owls, and Goldcrests scattered along the grassy paths. Back to the lighhouse area for the remainder of the afternoon, and birds continued to arrive - lots of commoner species, plus great views of Pallas's Warbler*, and just as we were walking back to the car, a Dusky Warbler appeared - at point blank range! - on an umbellifer right in front of us on the clifftop, clearly having just touched down. Absolute magic.

(*A 'Yellow-browed Warbler' was also widely reported and photographed in the same area, which turned into a Two-barred Warbler overnight - I didn't bother going back for it after such great views of one at Spurn a year or two ago - also on a YCN Migration Special - but it was another indication of the quality and quantity of birds that made it such a special week.) 

To illustrate just how many scarce sprites had arrived on he Head and beyond, I was round to see Pearson Snr in the village the day after (28th), got out of the car, and on his suburban street with a few well-spaced sycamores, I'd both Yellow-browed Warbler and Siberian Chiffchaff moving through with a mixed tit flock....

Quite a few days, and indeed, quite a month - epic falls, huge movements (by day and night), many memorable moments and days, lots of scarcities, and a fistful of special rarities to sprinkle a little stardust on proceedings (not that it were needed....). By the very end of the month, it was back to Spurn for another week of guiding (hard life, eh?) - which I'll address in the following post, coming soon.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

More from the Humber

A few from last week on the Humber during our regular surveys - Common Buzzard mobbed by Avocets, Redshank and Dunlin roosting on the docks, Meadow Pipits, and a Little Ringed Plover gunning through at Killingholme on 20th, which was quickly seen on its way by the local breeding Ringed Plovers.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Scandinavian Rock Pipits, Filey - 26th March '24

A couple of hours spare, a rare break in the crappy weather (mild, bright, almost windless - was it all a dream?), and a wander up around the North Cliff area here in Filey, specifically on the hunt for Scandinavian Rock Pipits (ssp littoralis).
This is the time of year when, for a short period, it's worth looking for obvious, well-marked littoralis - late enough to be showing varying signs of breeding plumage, but just before they make the short hop over the North Sea back to Scandinavia. Specifically those features include a greyish cast to the head, a pale supercilium, a warm wash to the breast and belly, neater streaking on the underparts (and especially flanks), and paler / whiter outer-tail feathers and wing bars.
They're very variable and some can still appear very muted (and some won't develop the above features at all); hence, it's always a joy when you come across nice, obvious ones with most or all of the above features, as I did today - two birds, one a bit more strongly marked than the other, and both in a spot they've favoured in previous springs. Both were also some distance from the local breeding petrosus (of which there are two pairs, both actively territorial and in the seasonal swing of things), in safer company with a male White Wagtail.

Friday, March 22, 2024

More joys of early spring

Another lovely early spring session at Filey. With the morning off, I opted to skip vismig (on account of a brisk, due westerly), snooze a little longer, and take a leisurely wander around the Northern Coastal Area - specifically Carr Naze, North Cliff and the Top Fields.
As soon as I got out of the car, I heard a familiar buzzzy call, and looked up to see two Sand Martins (above and below) - my first of the year - playing in the updrafts around the bay corner; a perfect start, and more than enough avian joy to keep me fuelled up. Within a minute, as well as the Sand Martins, I'd both Black Redstart and Snow Bunting (below) on the sunny side of the cliffs.
By now there was clearly also lots of incoming vismig underway, in the shape of Meadow Pipits and Linnets - after a couple of hours, the totals were 210 and 86 respecticvely - with a few other finches and Reed Buntings on the move too.
Up in the Field of Dreams (aka the stubbles along North Cliff), and despite the wind making it hard work, there was plenty to enjoy (as ever over recent months - see e.g. here and here). Today's treats among the throngs of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks included a White Wagtail, three flighty Lapland Buntings, and two Twite (above and below), which dropped in right in front of me to feed before heading off north-east.
Out on the sea, a fine opposite direction procession of small gulls was underway - a constant flow of Black-headed Gulls heading due east and out to sea towards European breeding grounds, and over a thousand Kittiwakes flowing inbound and joining various rafting flocks on the surface. A joy of a morning!