Sunday, 27 July 2014

Rare Raptor Breeds Successfully Locally

During one of our morning classes this term we came into the open for a very short time at about 10am, and we were about to plunge back into a wooded area.  We may have been in the open for a couple of minutes at most, but we stopped for a few seconds, while I tried to point out a distant Yellowhammer on a path.  Most people had seen it when a fairly new recruit asked what the strange bird was flying at the back of an oilseed rape field slightly to the north.  I could see immediately from its pearl grey plumage with black wing-tips and white rump, that it was a male Harrier. I wondered what on earth a male Hen Harrier would be doing in early May flying across arable fields, so I was more inclined to the even rarer Montagu's Harrier.  It also seemed noticeably rather small and slim.  I tried to ensure everyone got on to the bird, and instead of looking at it through my own defective binoculars I attempted to take some photographs.  Unfortunately, it carried on flying in a north westerly direction, and was fairly soon lost to sight.  Even though it was in full sight for 1 minute one brand new client failed to see the bird at all, but at least 2 others observed the markings on the undersides of the wings.  Checking my photographs on the back of my camera I was able to confirm that we had seen a Montagu's Harrier.  In the 10 years of the classes we had never come across this species before, so this was a lifer for the sessions.

Male Montagu's Harrier
At lunch time I contacted the head honcho of the birding community in our county to report my sighting, and ask if it was likely.  He confirmed it was, and I subsequently discovered that there was a pair nesting within 10 miles of our sighting.  I asked if I could put the pictures of the Montagu's Harrier on my blog if I obscured the location, but he replied that "there are egg collectors looking for clues" and he'd prefer that I didn't even mention the sighting on my blog for a while.  
Male Montagu's Harrier
Later that evening I received a message from one of the most promising young birders of his generation asking for more information on our sighting.  He was part of the team guarding the nest.  Apparently, the male had been seen that morning leaving the nest area at around 8.50, and then we had seen what was almost the same bird almost an hour later.  The Montagu's Harrier is an extremely scarce breeder with under 10 pairs breeding in the UK on an annual basis, so I was happy that my blog didn't put this particular pair in jeopardy.

Yesterday, the Yorkshire Post broke the news that a pair of Montagu's Harriers has bred successfully in our area fledging one youngster.  The exact location was not divulged in the paper, so I give no further information on that here.  As most people know, Hen Harriers are one of the most persecuted birds of prey in the UK, so one cannot be too careful with any rare species of raptor.  Once it was realised that a pair of these birds were attempting to breed, then the nest was given 24-hour protection by the RSPB.  It's a shame only 1 chick has fledged, but even one survivor is important when less than 10 pairs have bred in the UK this year.  Here's hoping they have better success in the immediate future, and more of my class members, as well as all birdwatchers have a chance of seeing them hunting locally in future years.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

10 Years of "Birding with Flowers"

Last week was a period of anniversaries and of celebrations.  On Wednesday the Hutton Cranswick Four presented me with a padded envelope, which I didn't examine until I arrived back home.  On opening it I was surprised to find a montage of photos commemorating the first 10 years of "Birding with Flowers."  The pictures depicted the Wednesday morning group at a variety of locations we had visited over the past 10 years.  Clockwise from the left hand corner I believe these depict visits to Bempton, Millington Pastures, Far Ings and Patrington Haven.  Also included were photos of a Firecrest after being ringed at Spurn in 2014, a Great Tit ringed at Spurn more recently and 3 Spoonbills from RSPB Blacktoft Sands.  Many of the Hutton Cranswick Four are unable to return next term, so this seemed a good time to celebrate the first 10 years of Birding with Flowers. 
Montage created by the Hutton Cranswick 4

Then on Friday at Brockadale the 2 stalwarts who have been studying birds with me for a decade asked if they could have 10 minutes of everyone's time at the end of the session, and before we set off on the long journey home.  We weren't to know that this would take much longer than expected, as there had been an accident on the M62!  Barbara and David opened the boot of their vehicle to reveal an amazing tableaux.  Inside were a few models of Mallards, plus a Mallard plate and a large cool box.  Then the refridgerated container was opened to reveal its stunning contents: bottles of elderflower champagne and fizzy apple juice, and the piece de resistance: an absolutely amazing cake.  This was adorned with yet another image of a Mallard.  You may ask why all the pictures of our most ubiquitous duck species?
Amazing Cake - courtesy of Barbara & David Dalton
 The answer goes back almost a decade.  When I'm looking for a bird species during the sessions, I tend to be searching to find something with which my students are not familiar.  Apparently, one week after spotting a wildfowl I was disappointed we hadn't spotted a Pintail, or another less common duck species, and I said something like "it's only a Mallard."  David took this comment to heart, and bearing in mind the glossy green head & other features he decided to found the M.A.S. - the Mallard Appreciation Society.  In the intervening time he has studied every aspect of the Mallard and drawn up an information sheet of unusual facts about a Mallard's life cycle.  The Friday afternoon group have colluded with David's interest, and many subsequent Mallard sightings are accompanied by various in-joke references to "unmentionables" and "unspeakables."  The ultimate result of this is that the Friday afternoon group are more likely to know esoteric facts about Mallards than any other group.
BWF = Birding with Flowers
MAS = Mallard Appreciation Society

So, the first 10 years are over, and in that time well over 200 individuals have been introduced to more than 220 species of bird, as well as plenty of butterflies, mammals, dragonflies, flowers, fungi and other wildlife in more than 60 different local venues.  Some people enjoy their weekly wildlife visits so much they are still attending after 10 years!  That means they've been out in the field with me on at least 300 occasions in that time, and have discovered many obscure corners of Yorkshire, several of which they were completely unaware before the classes started.
Bearded Tit - guaranteed this Autumn!
The Classes started in a very small way in January 2004 with just one morning a week (Wednesday) run by East Riding College in Beverley.  The following term an afternoon session was added, and the term after that a Friday morning term was added.  This was soon expanded to Friday afternoons.  When the time came to consider adding Tuesdays and Thursdays, the government chose that time to remove all support funding from adult education courses without an exam, so the college would no longer be able to subsidise the classes.  I had to decide whether to finish with the birdwatching classes, and return to full-time employment in the NatWest business centre, or to branch out on my own and run the courses as a business.  I chose the latter and until writing this paragraph I've never looked back!  

The vast majority of 'students' hail from Beverley, Cottingham or Willerby and Kirk Ella, but people also regularly commute from further afield.  At the moment the furthest participant travels from Ilkley every Thursday afternoon; and makes a day of it, visiting other sites of interest before his class starts.  There are also 3 ladies from different outskirts of York, and the suburbs of Leeds have also been represented. In the past people from Skipton have joined, as has a lady from Lincolnshire.  The furthest north I can remember has been someone from Flamborough, but Nafferton and Driffield still send their envoys every Wednesday.  As the sessions take place on weekdays, the vast majority of participants have taken early retirement.  However, young business people including a wedding photographer, and a fine foods delicatessen owner have also been eager learners.  The latter was only forced to withdraw when she decided to have a family.  One hard-pressed financial adviser finds by coming to the Wednesday morning sessions it breaks the week up nicely, and he is able to return to work completely refreshed.
Great Grey Shrike - hoped for this coming Autumn
Although the Spring/Summer term is over, I have already started to take bookings for the Autumn term.  Only yesterday a couple from Osset rang to enquire about spaces in September.  We will be paying special attention to locating birds on migration, but also some of our local specialised birds.  Early impressions would seem to indicate that it's going to be a very good Autumn for Bearded Tits, and as most students are impressed by this species when they see them for the first time, and are still enamoured on subsequent occasions, this is going to be our number one target species.  We will also be hoping to connect with Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, plus Hen Harriers, Merlin, Short-eared Owls, Redstarts, Wheatears and many other interesting species, such as Kingfishers and Water Rails.
Merlin - another hoped for bird 
What do the autumn sessions entail?  Well, for at least 2 hours every week, for a period of 10 weeks, we visit a different venue, and the visits are planned to coincide with the maximum number of species likely to be encountered throughout the year at that particular venue.  In addition to coastal and estuarine locations we will also be visiting the best local Red Kite roost to observe these graceful fliers as they arrive and manoeuvre before they disappear into the trees.  In the course of an average term you may expect to encounter and identify approximately 100 species.
Short-eared Owl - a popular species to see during daylight in Autumn
Redstart - migrating along the coast
If you are interested in joining the Autumn sessions, I'm afraid some classes are already fully booked, but there are plenty of spaces available on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.  However, if you are interested in another session please ask, as there may just be a vacancy.  I can be contacted on 07946 625688 or by email on
Wheatear - another migrating species
Kingfisher - probably the most popular bird of all time!
Thursday morning's celebrations on the actual anniversary may be read here:

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Menorca in June

Most years Tony Robinson misses 2 weeks of the course, as he visits Menorca in either May or June. Here are this year's photographs from June.  Some of these species can occasionally be seen in Yorkshire, but most of them are rare vagrants here. Sightings of Ospreys are increasing as this bird continues to enjoy breeding success in the UK.  I've been lucky enough to see a Woodchat Shrike at Spurn, after it was released after being ringed.  I found my own Yorkshire Nightingale at Spurn on 21st April 2008.  You can see those photographs here.    It's a couple of years now since we saw a Yorkshire Cattle Egret at Tophill Low, those pictures may be viewed here.  Whether we'll ever see a Sardinian Warbler or Egyptian Vulture seems unlikely, but is something we'll only discover in the future.  
All photographs (c) 2014 Tony Robinson
Woodchat Shrike
 Sardinian Warbler
 Continental Stonechat
 Egyptian Vulture
 Immature Egyptian Vulture
 Cattle Egret
 Female Copper Demoiselle
 Male Copper Demoiselle
 Egyptian Grasshopper
 Clouded Yellow

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Insect Bonanaza for Final Session

For the final session of the spring/summer term we travelled into North Yorkshire to visit one of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's reserves.  It's a favourite site for dog walkers who ensure their animals leave their filth behind, but is also popular with joggers and butterfly hunters who flatten the habitat in their desire to obtain the perfect photograph.   
When you reach the second week in July inland bird life, away from water, always tends to quieten down, but the Yellowhammers continued to punctuate the day with their simple refrains.   A young Redstart went through the car park at lunch time, and a few Blackcaps sang, as did a couple of Chiffchaffs.  The Little Owl was vocal, but apart from one quick view as it flew across the cliff in the morning, the pair remained out of sight.  The Kestrel chicks seemed to have fledged, but we still had glimpses of both the parents and the youngsters.
Banded Demoiselle
 Banded Demoiselle
 Although the birds were on the quiet side, the site came up trumps with insect life.  The Banded Demoiselles were in very high numbers wherever we reached any water, and the butterflies were still thriving on the flower-filled hillside.  Some of the Marbled Whites were beginning to look faded, but Gatekeepers were recently-emerged and looked very fresh and bright.  A Comma was seen briefly, and both groups managed to glimpse a fast flying Dark Green Fritillary, but it refused to perch for us.  A very fresh Brimstone, from a 3rd brood fluttered not far from the gate into the first woodland.
Marbled White & Meadow Browns
 Meadow Brown
 6-Spot Burnet-Moth
 A Cluster of Clustered Bellflower
 Enchanter's Nightshade
After the morning session many of the participants convened at a local hostelry for the end of term celebration.  However, after the afternoon session a surprise awaited the assembled throng...To be continued...

Friday, 11 July 2014

Stuck in the Middle with Spots

Although we did enjoy some brief views of 3 Bearded Tits yesterday afternoon, there can be no doubt that one confiding Spotted Redshank was the star of the show.  We were right on the edge of the cloud.  Participants coming from as far afield as Skipton and Church Fenton left home in glorious sunshine to be met with Goole's gloom.  However, those heading off to Beverley were met with heavy rain from lunch time onwards.  Luckily, RSPB Blacktoft Sands remained dry all the time we were there.  Other birds seen included a very unusually-coloured Cuckoo and a Willow Warbler, but there are no pictures of those.  The Marsh Harriers were very active, but quite distant most of the time.
Spotted Redshank
 Green Sandpiper
 Heron doing "Frank"
 Marsh Harrier
 Reed Bunting
 Immature Water Rail
 Record Shot of Curlew