Monday, 30 July 2012

Hull Birds Available Online

In 2002 Richard K Broughton published Birds of the Hull Area.  To mark the 10th anniversary of this milestone volume, the information included has just been made available online for the first time:  Birds of the Hull Area

A male Bullfinch taken within the Hull boundary at the Humber Bridge Country Park.  Numbers of Bullfinches continue to do well at the Park.  There are a great number of Ash trees at the park - one of the Bullfinches favourite foods  - but their food is definitely supplemented by food left at the feeding station.  These are the most confiding Bullfinches I have ever seen, sometimes flying down before the person putting down seed has retreated from the bird table!
 Unfortunately, the one off records mentioned in the book such as the Wood Warbler singing in May 1986, and the skull of a  Hawfinch hitting the kitchen window in 1998 have not been repeated.  However, there have been some more one off records to compensate.  In the very dry April of 2011 we had a succession of surprising visitors to the water in our garden: Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat even a Reed Warbler, but the biggest surprise was a male Ring Ouzel - a first since we have been watching in 1969.  Further investigation revealed it was trying to find earthworms among the male Blackbirds during the day in the cemetery, but for at least 2 evenings it sneaked into the garden for a drink.

A Ring Ouzel in the cemetery
 The previous evening here he is looking to slake his thirst
 We didn't see our first Great Spotted Woodpecker in our Hull garden until 18th September 1977, but now they are an almost daily visitor - especially the young birds in June and July.
Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker Bathing 
 In the 2000 book my photo of a male Brambling which stunned itself for a few seconds in our window was published.  Since then they are not quite an annual visitor, but we do get a few in the garden on average one or 2 every other spring or two.  We've yet to have an autumn record, all our birds seem to be on the way back to Scandinavia in April or May.
A female Brambling in our garden April 2008
 Another of my photos of a Tawny Owl perched on a drainpipe on the maternity home was included in the 2002 volume.  Unfortunately, the maternity home has gone, as has such an obvious place for the owls to perch.  We still have Tawny Owl in the trees, but the only time when they are easier to find is when the mother is sat guarding her nearby chicks.
Adult Tawny Owl
 Tawny Owl Chick
One of the most recent unusual one-off birds was a Lesser Whitethroat which was first seen on Boxing Day 2009.  It excited some local interest, as it its late arrival meant it could have been of an eastern race.  However, it's true identity was never definitively  established.  It was then seen subsequently on an almost daily basis until mid-April 2010.
Lesser Whitethroat at our feeding station in early January 2010

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Get Knotted

Red Knot (allegedly) in the mist
Almost like a painting!
 Still misty, but closer to the hide
This morning I thought I’d check out the high tide roost at Spurn Point.  After a very bright start it had clouded over by 8am, and then less than halfway to Spurn a sea mist rolled in.  The mist was still in place when I reached Chalk Bank hide over an hour before high tide was due.  The mist was quite thick, but I could make out that there were a couple of thousand Knot, and smaller amount of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank, Curlew.  There were a couple of Sanderling some with remnants of summer plumage, and at least a single Black-tailed Godwit.  On the far sand bank there seemed to be a mass of Oystercatchers, Herring Gulls and a few Cormorants, but these were difficult to see through the mist.
 A pair of Knot coming in to land
 Knot on the beach (with Dunlin in Foreground)
 Lining up to land
(Red) Bar-tailed Godwit - all alone
 Bar-tailked Godwit - still stands out in a crowd
 Bar-tailed Godwit (non-breeding plumage) with Dunlin
Over an hour and a half the mist came and went before rolling back completely.  At first I had sole occupation of the hide, but half an hour before high tide a Cambridgeshire couple came in for there first ever visit to Spurn.  They are used to thousands of Knot at Snettisham at the end of August, but were pleased to see so many in summer plumage in July.  As the tide began to go out 4 less-experienced birdwatchers squeezed in & once I’d made the most of the photography opportunities I took my leave. 
Grey Plover in flight
 Grey Plover landing - note diagnostic black 'wing' pits
 'Silver' Plover - near enough to see the gleam in its eye
 Grey Plover in non-breeding plumage
 Dunlin (left) Behind a Redshank
 Curlew (right) with Dunlin & Bar-tailed Godwit
 Sanderling (3rd from right) note white belly, slightly larger size & shorter bill
On the way out there were a few wary waders by the side of the road, but I was only able to snatch a few pictures of Turnstones.  There was very few birds of interest at canal Scrape.  I took so many pictures of the waders at Chalk Bank that my camera card was full for the first time ever, so it was time to delete some out of focus flight shots, as I waited to see if anything turned up at canal Scrape.  The whole of the afternoon was taken up with processing the wader pictures.  I should have just junked those taken in fog!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Gearing up for the Autumn Migration

This September every class will be visiting Spurn at the time of year when we are most likely to see the greatest variety of species on migration.  Below are photos taken during just 2 days in September 2008.  
Male Redstart on Migration at Spurn
 Immature Cuckoo
 Many adult Cuckoos and several immature Cuckoos have already left the UK, but in September there may still be a few lingerers.  As Cuckoos are becoming harder to see every year, and many people probably didn't manage to see or even hear one this spring, then will will make a determined effort to track any late leavers at Spurn this Autumn.
Immature Cuckoo
Another bird which has been in steep decline in recent years is the Spotted Flycatcher.  They were particularly difficult to find in East Yorskhire this spring.  I believe even Tophill Low didn't manage to host a breeding pair this year.  However, these are another of the so-called "common migrants" which we should be lucky enough to encounter on their leisurely southwards migration in September.
Spotted Flycatcher
 The Pied Flycatcher has never been a common breeding bird in East Yorkshire during my lifetime, so Autumn is the best time to try and locate this species in this county.
Pied Flycatcher
200 years ago the Red-Backed Shrike was quite a widespread breeding bird in England & Wales, but it hasn't been a regular breeder in the UK since the final bird nested in 1988.  Some Autumns there can be quite a scattering of individuals at coastal sites, and if there are any in 2012, I will try and ensure every course participant gets to see one of these Butcher Birds.  
Unlike the Red-Backed Shrike, its larger cousin is a winter visitor, but it may arrive on these shores at the same time as the smaller bird.  The individual below had just been ringed and was being show to the appreciative masses before it was released.  This year every class member will be given the opportunity to witness a range of birds being captured, ringed and released.  It is a real privilege to witness the process of ringing, and to see these birds at close quarters in the hand, so a small donation to help with the cost of this scientific work will be levied in this particular case.
 Great Grey Shrike
The Wheatear only passes through East Yorkshire on its way to and from its breeding areas on higher ground.  These are very popular birds with course participants as like many members of   the chat family they will pose in the open somewhere obvious giving birders plenty of time to get them in their binoculars.   Wheatears do arrive at Spurn on both their Spring and Autumn migration, but we are likely to see a wider range of plumages on display in the Autumn.  This is a young bird illustrated below. 
Another member of the chat family is the Redstart.  We do have a small breeding population in the very north corner of East Yorkshire, but again the coast is the best local area to encounter this species in any numbers.  At their breeding sites they can be fairly secretive, when they aren't feeding their young, and rather surprisingly these bright birds can be fairly difficult to see when the male is singing.  However, as in this example and the illustration at the top of this blog they will perch in the open during the Autumn migration. 
Male Redstart
 Female Redstart
The Stonechat is another member of the chat family.  Unlike every other perching bird mentioned in this post, the Stonechat has been increasing as a breeding bird in the UK.  Also, unlike most of the other small birds referred to  here, the Stonechat remains in the UK throughout the winter.  This seemed a sensible strategy when we were having mild winters, but it has declined markedly after the last 3 winters.  I can no longer guarantee we will see a Stonechat, but we will do our best to find one!
A final member of the chat family we may see in September is the Whinchat.  In the early 1980s this could be seen in the breeding season near Kiplingcotes, but those birds have long gone. In June and July the nearest birds are probably either on the North Yorkshire Moors or in South Yorkshire on some of the Humberhead peat levels, but in September a few individuals will still pass through Spurn on their way to Africa.

Most of the birds I've referred to so far are passerines, or songbirds, but you may see other families at the coast in September.  One wading bird which we are likely to observe is the Snipe.  Its cryptic plumage makes it very difficult to locate when it is feeding among dead and dry grasses, but it stands out quite well like this individual when it is in on a shorter lawn.
 September is a little early for the largest influx of Short-eared Owl, which usually occurs much later in the year, but in 2008 this bird was flying around early on the day of our visit.
Short-eared Owl

I am now taking bookings for the Autumn term, which begins on 4th of September. There are a couple of vacancies on most sessions, but Wednesday mornings, Thursday mornings & Thursday afternoons are either full or nearly full. For 2 hours a week for 10 weeks encounter the natural world as a completely new sensual experience. You'll be amazed what you'll find just by listening, and not only by looking! In the Autumn we'll be paying special attention to birds migrating along the East coast & Humber estuary. Specific birds we'll be hoping to see include: Bearded Tit, Hobby, Bittern, Kingfisher, Barn Owl, Red Kite, and nearly 100 other species! So, if you are interested in learning more about your local wildlife in beautiful and secluded venues for less than £10 a week, then this is the course for you! We visit a different local hotspot each week and identify all the birds and as much other wildlife as we can. Each session lasts at least 2 hours. The course runs twice daily Tuesday to Friday. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

At the Eleventh Hour

Little Owl Chick
On Friday & Sunday evening the final events associated with Robert Fuller’s summer exhibition took place.  On both occasions we started in the new studio extension.  From the window on Friday we could see a young Great Spotted Woodpecker on the peanuts, and a Tree Sparrow fledgling being fed by its parent on a suet cylinder.  Then we saw the male Kestrel come down to  a small bird table.   Yesterday we only had the Kestrel, but this time at least 2 individuals were seen.
Immature Great Spotted Woodpecker (but in Hull)

We then shared cars to a hillside where we settled down to wait for Badgers.  As we waited on Friday we were surrounded by the gentle farts of House Martins, the cheerful twittering of Swallows.  There were plenty of Finches in the area, including Goldfinches, Linnets, Greenfinches and Chaffinches, which flew over us throughout our vigil gathering food for their chicks.  A Yellowhammer was also seen on both nights.  A Buzzard hunted nearby on Friday, whilst there were 2 on Sunday, but they didn’t approach as close to the waiting group.  On both evenings the plaintive mewing of a young Buzzard could be heard calling from the wood on the hilltop, presumably asking to be fed.  

On both nights we waited for over an hour keeping an eye on the higher sett, which we were told was the one currently occupied and that the cubs were due to emerge about 8.45.  Nothing happened on Friday until one participant spotted a head emerging from the supposedly vacant lower sett at 8.50.  A female emerged several times & collected fresh grass and backed into her tunnel.   We waited for quite a bit longer without any further sightings, so we packed up ready to return to the gallery.  We had all exited through the gate when someone spotted movement at the higher sett.  Everyone stood entranced for 10 minutes or so as 4 cubs capered about & seemed to play before setting off into the cultivated field.  Sunday was similar but this time all the activity was at the higher sett.  The telescopes were aimed at the upper sett, and everyone enjoyed miraculous close views of the energetic playing of the young Badgers.
Badgers (last year at a nearby location)
(c) 2012 Vince Cowell
 Tawny Owl (same location, but from 2010)
(c) 2012 Vince Cowell
On returning to the gallery it was about 10pm when the Tawny Owls arrived & these were watched for at least half an hour tucking in to their evening meal.  This year the owls in the trees near the gallery have failed to raise any offspring, but the adults are coming down to food, as are another pair from 2 fields away.  Apparently, there is considerable tension between these 2 families, but we only saw a couple of amicable owls. 

Tawny Owl (same location, but from 2010)
(c) 2012 Vince Cowell

 Little Owl (same location in 2010, is this the bird that was eaten earlier this year, or the one that paired up with another after the death of its partner?)

You may have read on Robert’s blog of the death of one of his adult Little Owls at the beginning of the breeding season.  Robert therefore assumed that the Little Owls were a write-off this year, but scientists say there is always a surplus population, and sure enough another bird must have moved in, because on Thursday evening Robert found a Little Owl fledgling – nearly a month later than other years.   They hadn’t used their accustomed nest-hole, but had utilised a previously ignored special nest box instead, which had been in position for 7 years.  We shared cars to this area on both nights, and Robert managed to locate a chick on each evening, which remained in place, transfixed by his torchlight.  The scowling youngster provided a fitting ending to the evening’s sighting, especially for the chap on Sunday, who’s Birthday treat for all his friends to enjoy, was the reason this event was taking place.  This year the evenings began inauspiciously, but perseverance paid off and by the end all the targets were achieved. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

A 'Butterfly' Walk at Noddle Hill

Yesterday the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust organised a Butterfly Walk at the Noddle Hill Nature Reserve, and they even arranged for it not to rain!  Approximately 12 members of the public turned up  including a young media star, who recently found some Speckled Bush Crickets near the Humber Bridge.  Helen had plenty of ID sheets for anything other than butterflies we might see, and the children each took a net and some jars and magnifiers to observe any insects in detail.
Small Skipper
We set off down Red Admiral Alley, but my expectations weren't terribly high after the recent unsettled weather.   However, this alley is quite sheltered and quite soon we saw a few Ringlets, a high-flying Comma, a migrant Silver-Y-moth, and a smaller brown moth.  A pair of Blue-tailed Damselfies flew off before their picture could be taken.  There was no sign of the Speckled Wood butterflies, which had been in this area the other week.  However, we could be between their 3 or 4 broods.
 Silver-Y Moth

We emerged from the alley into a more open area, and pretty soon there was a fast moving skipper butterfly, and another dark brown moth, which may have been a carpet moth species.   There were plenty of wild flowers including Red and White clovers, Mellilot, and other members of the pea family.  An insignificant white-mauve flower was spotted by Helen and after investigation seemed to be the Smooth Tare.
Shaded Broad-Bar (thanks to Barry Warrington for ID)
Not long after this Maggie caught the first Meadow Brown of the day.  It seems hard to believe that this is the most numerous butterfly in the UK.  Only a little further one was a Soldier beetle, and we were going to see a lot more of them before the session ended.  We then came across a flooded area, which isn't really surprising considering the recent rain we've had.  It was along here that a Sedge Warbler could be heard singing from a bramble patch.  
Meadow Brown
 Smooth Tare
 Small Skipper
Soldier Beetle
Narrow-Bordered 5-Spot Burnet-Moth
 In an area with a lot of clover we saw a Narrow-Bordered 5-Spot Burnet-Moth flying around, which we were unable to catch in a net, but there were several more in the area.  The children wandered off the path to a fenced-off area where there may have been an old tip.  Near here we heard the strange scratchy sound of a Grey Partridge, which was great as numbers of this gamebird have plummeted in recent years.   Ten minutes later we flushed another in a different area, so hopefully there is at least 1 pair in the area.  Gail, Jacob's mum, moved a stone & disturbed a large moth.  This seemed to be injured and was very difficult to photograph as its wings were fluttering even more rapidly than the Silver-Y.  It didn't appear to be pumping up its wings after it emerges as a moth from the chrysalis for the first time, but there was a very active ants' nest near to where it was found, so they may have been attempting to devour it until it was disturbed.
Oak Eggar

 The children were hungry, so when we reached a bench they had a few sandwiches, and it was at this point that one young searcher and his parents headed back to the car.  As they ate their lunch a Grasshopper Warbler started to 'reel', and its strange insect-like song rose and fell for the next quarter-of-an-hour.  The second half of the walk wasn't as fruitful as the first, as it had clouded over, so there weren't as many insects on the wing.  A Yellowhammer could be heard singing faintly over Foredyke Drain, while Reed Buntings stuttered their simple ditties closer at hand.  

One of the highlights on the return journey was a noisy female Sparrowhawk which soared for a while before plunging into thick vegetation, and then finally setting off in a northerly direction.  We reached the ponds where we found a female Blue-tailed damselfly resting on a reed.  It stayed long enough for everyone to study it.  
 Blue-tailed Damselfly
My initial fears proved groundless, because although there weren't exactly hundreds of butterflies, and there weren't as many bird species to see as there had been in May, there was still plenty to see and observe, and hopefully everyone went home impressed with Noddle Hill and the wildlife they had studied there.