Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bird migration is in full swing

Dear birdwatchers

I'm writing this blog on a very dark, wet morning, It has been raining for about 36 hours and I've just heard that the River Aire has broken its banks in Leeds. We've currently got a "dartboard low" pressure system over Britain and the winds continue to come from a southerly direction.

So why am I sounding like Paul the weatherman (for our global audience, Paul is our local weatherman at the BBC in Yorkshire, England)? Well at this time of year, the birding community is watching the weather very closely for signs of optimal migration conditions. That is when birds set off, en mass, from the Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Northern Russia and Scandinavia and make their journey southwards for the winter. Birds begin this outward migration after the breeding season; their journey south being a much more leisurely activity than the hurried trek northwards in the spring.

It is quite normal for some wading birds to arrive in the UK in July and August after a failed breeding attempt and visits to nature reserves with lagoons can provide a good opportunity to practise some wader identification. This year, wet and windy summer weather has meant that large numbers of waders have abandoned their breeding grounds much earlier than normal (see Unseasonal weather alters bird migration patterns) and large flocks have migrated early to feed in the UK.

Poor weather conditions will also cause many birds to lose their way and each year the UK will host some "vagrant" birds from the American and Eurasian continents. Migration picks up speed in September with a steady stream of birds, including some scarce migrants, arriving on our shores. However, southerly winds will delay the decision to move over water.

What we are looking for is an easterly/north easterly wind to facilitate migration to the UK. This weekend gave us some suitable conditions but the birdwatcher's dream is when we have dramatic "falls" of birds on our eastern coasts due to high pressure over Scandinavia and a depression over the UK (to over-simplify this complicated interaction). This weather system provides ideal migration conditions from the breeding grounds but, as the birds reach their destination, they hit bad weather and are forced down onto the first bit of dry land they can find. Sometimes this happens over the sea and birds drop down onto boats and oil rigs (or tragically, the sea itself). Once seen, a "fall" of migrating birds will never be forgotten. Imagine thousands of goldcrests sitting on the ground, flying around your feet and past your face, landing on your telescope; large flocks of redwing and fieldfare lining the trees and bushes; and with them birds such as flycatchers, redstarts, hawfinch, shrike and who knows what else you might find!

Once here, many birds stay in the UK for the winter months but some will use Britain as a "stepping stone" on their journey to southern Europe and Africa. Some birds will travel further still and will repeat this journey back and forth for many years.

Personally, I'm really excited about thousands of swans, geese, ducks and waders arriving here for the winter and to all the lovely winter birdwatching months ahead.

Start Birding classes will teach you about migration patterns and how the weather can have a direct affect on which birds you will see in the UK. You'll learn which birds move and which birds stay and which species you are likely to see from month to month.

Over the last week Start Birding classes have also been studying how to record bird sightings, how to make notes in the field and what to record. We've even had a go at some annotated sketching. Learning to record birds is a fantastic way to contribute to the science of ornithology. Once you can identify birds with confidence you can submit your records to your recorder and help us to learn more about our bird populations.

On Saturday, a few class members joined me for some birdwatching at Rodley Nature Reserve. Evidence of migration could even be seen at this small reserve on the outskirts of Leeds. Wigeon and gadwall numbers are increasing and a little egret turned up towards the end of the day. Whinchat were also present a couple of weeks ago. One of the stars of the day was a little owl.

On Sunday, Start Birding headed off to Bridlington for an early sailing on the Yorkshire Belle for the RSPB Shearwater and Skua Cruise. With favourable weather conditions, activity started early and great skua was seen when we were not long out of the harbour. We had further sightings of this predatory seabird throughout the trip with the occasional view of Arctic skua, Manx shearwater and sooty shearwater. Kittiwakes, herring gulls, black-backed gulls, guillemots, puffin, razorbills and gannets gave us ample opportunity to learn the plumage differences between winter, summer and immature birds. Some people manged to see harbour porpoise. Turnstone and purple sandpiper could be seen from the harbour walls.

Manx shearwater (courtesy Matthew Binns)

Great skua (courtesy Matthew Binns)

Once on dry land again, we headed off to Bempton where red-breasted flycatcher and yellow-browed warbler had been reported. A brambling had also been seen. The wind speed was increasing by the hour as this current weather system headed north. This made small birds difficult to find but we did see the red-breasted flycatcher. Not wanting to stand around, we left the hopeful bunch of birdwatchers and headed off to the cliffs to see whether any gannets were still around on the ledges. As you can see, there were still some chicks yet to fledge and there were also some immature birds to photograph.

The terrible weather this Monday and the rising water levels provided an ideal setting for this week's subject matter "being ready for anything" which covers safety issues, trip planning and what to wear when birdwatching. Find out more by contacting Linda at Start Birding on linda.startbirding@gmail.com or visit www.starbirding.co.uk

If you'd like to follow migration then visit the British Trust for Ornithology sites BTO Bird Migration Blog  and BirdTrack. Local migration information can be found on your nearest bird observatory website (for Yorkshire visit the Spurn Bird Observatory site) or you subscribe to Birdguides to receive reports of birds seen in your chosen area on the web, by email or by text. You can also visit the websites for your local bird reserves for sightings or call your local Birdline number (for Yorkshire use Birdline North East 09068 700 246)

Good luck!


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Start Birding visits Spurn Point

What a fantastic week it has been for Start Birding.

The new beginner's birdwatching classes are going well at Rodley Nature Reserve on Mondays and Wednesdays with my new students learning the basics of how to become a better birdwatcher.

Already we have covered how to get the best out your binoculars and learned how to choose a good field guide. Thanks to In Focus at Denby Dale for their support and advice.

This week we are putting that learning into practise as we work out how to identify birds and begin to understand more about them.

Class members learn how to identify birds through various methods

Classes will continue throughout the academic year and subject areas will be highlighted in future blogs.

On Saturday, Start Birding visited one of the most fantastic places in the UK to see migration in action, Spurn Point and Spurn Bird Observatory. This reserve is managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and is an excellent place to practise wader identification for budding birdwatchers; being able to see lots of different species together for comparison.

The famous lighthouse at Spurn Point

The star bird was a great white egret, found resting at the Beacon Lagoons area of the peninsula. Three grey herons, also resting nearby, provided a good size comparison for novice birders and the egret's reaction to a passing kestrel clearly showed it's crooked neck.

On the wader front, large flocks of knot gathered on the Humber Estuary with bar-tailed godwit, grey plover, golden plover, ringed plover, oystercatcher, curlew, redshank, dunlin and turnstone mingled together for good comparison. Sanderlings busily fed on the shoreline behaving, one of my class members describes, like someone who has been drinking too much coffee!

Sandwich terns cried overhead as they made their way south for the winter and a red-throated diver was seen flying over the sea along with many young gannets. Grey seal heads punctuated the wide expanse of sea before us as we looked for migrating birds.

The south-westerly weather limited our migration experience but the beautiful sunny skies and calm seas reminded us that it was still late summer.

Late summer birding at Spurn Point

Next week we take to the sea for, hopefully, shearwaters and skuas on the RSPB Shearwater Cruise

If you're interested in joining me to learn more about birds then contact me for a chat on linda.startbirding@gmail.com

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Start Birding in September: new programme begins

Dear readers

This week marked the start of my new programme of birdwatching walks and classes.

I was really excited to open the new line-up with my Birdwatching for Beginners classes which will be taking place regularly at Rodley Nature Reserve on Monday and Wednesday evenings. This week my new birdwatchers learned what they needed to know about binoculars and practised some valuable techniques to help them to improve their birdwatching skills.

We had some fun learning to use our binoculars properly and I hope that everyone has been doing their homework over the last week to build up those arm muscles!

This coming week we will be learning about what makes a good field guide and will start learning to identify some birds.

On Saturday, my first walk was to the Lower Derwent Valley. We watched birds from the Bank Island tower at Weldrake; the viewing platform at Thorganby and North Duffield Carrs.

It was a beautiful day on Saturday and a heat haze was already creating some difficulty in viewing distant birds from the tower at Bank Island. despite this, we managed to pick out eclipsed shoveler, teal, mallard and wigeon and, among a flock of lapwing, around 20 snipe playfully feeding in the shallow water. There was an air of overlapping seasons as dragonflies danced around us and skeins of greylag geese periodically drifted noisily onto the deeper water. We all enjoyed the last remnants of summer while, at the same time, felt pangs of yearning for the autumn months ahead.

As we watched the distant lagoon, the lapwing and snipe rose up and, searching the sky, we found an immature marsh harrier being mobbed by gulls. It swept downwards towards the lagoon and disappeared in the vegetation. Only because we had followed it were we able to make out the creamy head feathers above the foliage.

Marsh harrier's head just showing in front of the greylags

At Thorganby, there was no water visible to attract waders, wildfowl or terns. A search of the area provided great views of little owl, stock dove and a yellow wagtail family. North Duffield Carrs was very quiet for birds. Heron, reed bunting, blue tit and tree sparrow made an appearance but the majority of our time there was spent watching dragonflies and butterflies. Here we saw emperor dragonfly amongst more brown hawkers. Butterflies included speckled wood and comma.

Watching dragonflies and butterflies in the sunshine was a real highlight after such a terrible summer generally for insects this year.

For more information about my birdwatching classes and walks you can either contact me directly at linda.startbirding@gmail.com or visit my website www.startbirding.co.uk