Monday, 30 April 2012

Start Birding is rebranding

Over the coming weeks, Start Birding will gradually be re-branding with a new website and new business materials. I hope that you like the new colours and the new logo.

The logo I'm using (shown on this page) is a design by the artist Natasha Newton called Magic Forest. If you click on the image it will take you to Natasha's website.

Many thanks to Natasha for allowing me to use her beautiful design which I think combines my love of birds and the use of natural materials to produce depth and texture.

Best wishes


Birdwatching for Beginners classes at Rodley Nature Reserve

Hello everyone

Just to let you know that Start Birding has organised a new "Birdwatching for Beginners" class at Rodley Nature Reserve in Leeds. The class will commence on Monday 3rd September, 7-9 p.m. and will initially run for 8 weeks. Places are limited so please book early to avoid disappointment.

The course will include the following subjects:

  • Technological information on binoculars
  • Advice on what to ask when buying binoculars (please do not buy binoculars prior to coming on the course)
  • Introduction to field guides - What to look for when buying a field guide
  • How to take notes, lists and sketches
  • Indoor birdwatching session with slides
  • Bird topography
  • Be prepared for all weathers: advice on outdoor clothing and what to take with you
  • Birdwatching code of conduct
  • Bird songs and calls
  • Identifying birds using their characteristics or “Jizz”
  • Bird habitats – knowing what to expect in a variety of different habitats
  • Where to watch birds - bird reserves and local areas
  • Bird groups and societies – what they do
  • How to attract birds into your garden
  • Feeding birds – what and when to feed
  • Bird tables and bird boxes
  • Indoor bird identification exercises
  • An outdoor session will also be arranged on a weekend date to suit all participants.

The course will also include handouts, your first birdwatching notebook and the use of binoculars if you don't have a pair already. NB: Please don't buy binoculars prior to the course as I will give you advice so that you can make an informed choice when you are ready to do so.

I'm aiming for the course to continue after the half term break until Christmas then begin again from January to June so there will be plenty to learn over the coming year.

If you are not able to make it to an evening class and would like to attend a daytime class then please contact me to put your name on the waiting list.

Best wishes and I look forward to hearing from you.


At last! The sun is shining

I'm writing this post on the first sunny, spring day since the April "showers" began. What a relief it has been to be warm and dry for a change.

This week, I led another trip to Fairburn on Tuesday evening. The weather wasn't too bad but it was very cold and it had been wet during the day. Nevertheless we saw yellow wagtails - my first for the year - and we waited longingly for a grasshopper warbler to emerge from a bramble thicket. It was getting a bit late for it to be enticed out of the thick cover and I couldn't blame it for staying put.

Yesterday I got very wet and very cold. In the morning I attended a birdwatching walk organised by Rodley Nature Reserve. Despite the cold, wet weather, a few people joined us to listen to warblers singing. Thankfully enough birds braved the cold to make the venture worthwhile and everyone enjoyed views of whitethroat, blackcap, willow warbler and lesser whitethroat. In the afternoon, I held a stall at our local British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) site, at Hollybush. They had organised a Tree Fun Day, an event that demonstrates tree sculpture with a chainsaw, wood turning, nestbox making and various arts and crafts. The weather had really turned horrible by this time so I was amazed when people started arriving in wellies and raincoats. I really enjoyed my day despite the weather and it was great meeting everyone.

This morning, started early for me with our first Breeding Bird Survey of the year on one of the farms close to Leeds. In contrast, it was a beautiful morning with lots of blue sky and wispy clouds. As usual we found lapwings, yellowhammer, skylarks, buzzard and red kite, to name just a few, and also saw grey partridge, wheatear and yellow wagtail. We normally see quite a lot of hares during our visits to the farm and they are usually solitary by the time we start our survey work. Today however, there were at least 20 and most of the time they were in groups of between 5 and 12. I've never seen so many all together so perhaps it had something to do with the stormy wet weather. I hear the collective noun for hares is a drove and there couldn't have been a better description than that of what we saw today.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Hosepipe bans and floods

After the Environment Agency announced that half of the UK is now under drought conditions, finding swollen rivers and flooded nature reserves around Leeds and York just goes to show how much rain has fallen over the last couple of weeks. I hope that water levels are now improving at nearby Potteric Carr as things were getting really desperate there.

Since my last post, Start Birding has been planning birdwatching activities around very heavy April showers. Thank goodness for those hides! Not one participant has had to resort to waterproof over-trousers and we have managed to dodge the worst showers by taking refuge just at the right time.

At Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire on Saturday, a walk around the lake produced another pair of Mandarin ducks to add to the ones we saw at Adel Dam last week. Other notable birds were nuthatch, treecreeper, tree pipit, green woodpecker, great-spotted woodpecker, chiffchaff, willow warbler, jay, marsh tit, sedge warbler, reed bunting, swallow, house martin, redstart (heard singing but not seen), tufted duck and goosander. Sadly, we didn't manage to see any hawfinches this time. If the grey squirrel population is indeed to blame for the decline of this bird at Clumber, then the future for the hawfinches doesn't look good on the estate given the number of squirrels we saw on this visit.

Clumber Park

We were lucky in that we only had a slight shower while we were on the far side of the lake which didn't warrant an additional layer of clothing. Sights and sounds of an equestrian orienteering event on this National Trust estate added to our enjoyment of the day and it was great to see the interaction between visitors, horses and riders.  

On Sunday I visited RSPB Fairburn Ings with the recipient of a Start Birding gift voucher. This one was bought as a birthday present. We spent 2 hours at the reserve and, along with common woodland and wildfowl species we managed to see tree sparrow, Mediterranean gull, black-necked grebe, little ringed plover, goldeneye and swallows.

A little later, after saying goodbye to my guest, I had to shelter from a heavy shower while at the Lin Dyke end of the reserve. I was glad of the rather unwelcoming metal hide at that point as it rained so hard even a nearby heron left the area to take shelter. Once the weather system had passed, I continued birding for a while, picking up my first whitethroat and grasshopper warbler of the year. I then headed off towards York and hit torrential rain and surface water on the A1 and the A64.

Spoonbill Flash at Fairburn Ings

Start Birding has been booked by an American visitor from Los Angeles for a birdwatching walk on Thursday. My guest is staying at York and, due to the changeable weather, I needed to check out some sites around York for suitability (birds, accessibility and water levels). The rain had stopped by the time I reached Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Askham Bog nature reserve. However, only the boardwalk was accessible due to flooding and there were a lot of dog walkers. so, after finding a willow tit, I nipped to Hes East for a quick look at this new section of York university campus. The new development has a fantastic man-made lake which has been host to quite a few good birds already, so it is definitely one to watch.

After this I headed off to Weldrake Ings and didn't expect to see such an expanse of water after the prolonged spell of dry weather we'd had only a few short weeks ago. The River Derwent had burst its banks (not unusual on this section of the river) and the whole area was flooded, including the car park and the walk to the hides.

Weldrake Ings car park under water

The flooded Lower Derwent Valley from Bank Island

Thankfully (and brilliantly) there is a viewing tower from the Bank Island car park just a few yards north of the turning to the Weldrake Ings parking area. From here I got fantastic views of water, blue sky and dramatic clouds and oh, the birds? ............. I ended the day with a pair of garganey. Bliss!

Apologies for the poor photo taken using my phone and my telescope!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Snow, sun and showers!

Well, what a changeable start we've had to April with snow, chilly winds, hail storms and rain interspersed with warm sunshine. I hope that you've all managed to get out and enjoy the arrival of our early spring migrants without getting caught out by the weather.

Over the last couple of weeks Start Birding has been planning new beginner's classes which will commence in September. The first of these will hopefully run from Rodley Nature Reserve - details to follow shortly. I'm just looking for a suitable venue for the second one and I'll let everyone know once I make my decision. Please contact me (if you haven't done so already) if you are interested in joining an indoor class to learn more about birds and how to get the best out of your birdwatching.

Also during the last couple of weeks I've visited Newby hall for the first time. The garden was really beautiful and was filled with spring bird song. In between sheltering from the rain and hail showers, I managed to see quite a few species of birds including goosander, nuthatch, treecreeper, great spotted woodpecker, chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap, bullfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit.

Last weekend I had a couple of trips to the Aire Valley visiting Lowther lake, the new St Aidan's site, RSPB Fairburn Ings and Swillington Ings. It was lovely to see avocets and little egrets in the area and spring migrants were firmly established in the valley. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers, blackcaps, swallows, sand martins and house martins will hopefully be joined by the next wave of spring migrants in the coming weeks.

Right on cue on the 6th April, a pair of mallards turned up on the garden pond at home. They have arrived the same week every year for the past 5 years. Occasionally, others turn up and we have had as many as 5 individual birds. Not bad for a garden in the middle of Burley in Leeds. Mostly, other males drop in and cause havoc as they try to copulate with the resident female. You can imagine the mess that is created in the pond as the resident male battles to keep his mate and fight off the interloper.

Thankfully, the mallards never stay to lay eggs here and only use the pond during courtship. It would be lovely to have some more ducklings at home but I'm a long way from any large body of water and they would never be able to survive their first few flightless weeks surrounded by roads, cats and urban foxes.

Although it is still early in the season, sightings of swifts in Wakefield encouraged me to start playing our swift CD at the upstairs window to lure birds to the boxes on the gable end of our house. Last year we managed to get a pair perching on the swift brick late in the season which may mean that they were a young pair prospecting for a nest this year. They continued to acknowledge the house for the rest of the season so we're keeping our fingers crossed that we may be starting a new colony this year. I'll keep you posted.

Last night I led a trip to Golden Acre Park and Adel Dam Nature Reserve. Again there were plenty of chiffchaff, willow warblers and blackcaps and we managed to see a few treecreepers and a couple of mistle thrushes collecting worms after a slight shower. Teal, tufted duck, great-spotted woodpeckers and little grebe were upstaged by 5 male and 2 female rather splendid mandarin ducks which posed beautifully in front of the hides. Despite the showery evening, we managed to be in the right place at the right time and got back to the car park without getting wet.

If you'd like to join me on one of the trips then please give me a call.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Spring forward to Harewood

Over the last few days Start Birding has been leading spring walks around the Harewood estate and surrounding farmland.

On Tuesday evening, a group of birdwatchers joined me, armed with binoculars and torches, to look for woodcock, tawny owl and bats. The sun was already quite low as we made our way towards our usual woodcock viewing point. The sky was beautifully clear and the temperature was dropping fast. There wasn't a red kite to be seen on route (which is unusual these days) but we did picked up the high pitched song of goldcrests at the top of the canopy and the air was full of singing wrens, robins, song thrushes and blackbirds.

We reached our usual viewing place and began to look and listen for the woodcock. The woodcock is a native, woodland wader with a long bill, looking very similar to a snipe. It nests on the ground and is well camouflaged as its plumage is very much like dead leaves. From February to July, it performs a unique display flight at dusk, roughly repeating a chosen route until dark. The best way to see this bird is by finding some suitable habitat and waiting for one to fly by. The woodcock's song is a series frog-like croaks followed by a high-pitched twis-sick! When there is a lot of background noise, such as traffic noise or wind blowing through the trees, it is this second part of the song that is more audible.

At that wonderful crepuscular time, when the blackbirds nervously alerted us to the presence of emerging tawny owls, we heard the first tell-tale squeak of a roding woodcock followed by a fly past which clearly showed the woodcock's long beak. At our usual viewing point, our woodcocks normally complete their cycle at about 3 minute intervals. Our woodcock this evening seemed to be roding over a larger territory as it was taking much longer. Nevertheless, we managed to get a few good views and a chance to listen to the roding calls. At one point two birds flew past together.

Check out this link to see what they look and sound like.

By this time, male and female tawny owls were calling close by and pipistrelle bats were feeding on insects above our heads along the tree line. As we made our way back, the explosive calls of pheasants drowned out any chance of hearing more woodcock. As the sky was so clear, we were treated to a fantastic view of the waning moon with Venus and Jupiter close by and Mars appearing later to the east. We looked at the moon with the telescope before heading back, checking the stream with the bat detector for Daubenton's bats.

On Sunday, I led my early spring walk around Harewood and the surrounding farmland towards East Keswick and Wike. It was another beautiful day, however the temperature was much reduced in comparison to the last 2 weeks of fantastic spring weather. Despite the lower temperature, the sun provided enough encouragement to the birds which were singing loudly in the first section of our walk, a patch of woodland on the Harewood estate. Here species included red kite, blue tit, coal tit, great tit, wrens, robins, stock dove, nuthatch, treecreeper and chiffchaff. We also watched hare, grey squirrel and a shrew running around the understorey. While walking through New Laithe Farm, we were alerted to raptors being present by rooks, crows and jackdaws massing together and flying erratically. A red kite and two buzzards were being mobbed and a kestrel was soaring close by.

Tree sparrow, shelduck, coot, moorhen, mallard, Canada and greylag goose were added to our list at Hollin Hall and the final section of our walk provided species such as yellowhammer, reed bunting, meadow pipit, tree sparrow, skylark, lapwing and linnet. All the while we were treated to incredibly close up views of red kite. Our total number of bird species was 40 over the 4 hour walk with the possible addition of a great spotted woodpecker heard in Spring Wood.