Sunday, 18 November 2012

LEOs, SEO and BNG - what do the abbreviations mean?

Hello Birdwatchers

What a fantastic day we had yesterday at RSPB Saltholme reserve at Teesside. We woke to pouring rain and travelled north

By the time we arrived, the rain had stopped. The air was still damp and the light was somewhat 'milky'; not very good conditions for photographs but, thankfully, enough visibility for birding.

We started our day with great views of gadwall, teal, redshank and goldfinch then nipped into the excellent visitor centre to see what was around.

Redshank busily feeding in front of the hide

Goldfinch feeding on niger seed
Our birding was very quickly focused when we heard that volunteers were setting up scopes on some long-eared owls (LEOs) at the far end of the reserve. We were also invited to watch out for a starling murmuration from the balcony of the visitor centre at the end of the day.

On our way round to the LEO spot we found two hunting kestrels on the aptly named Kestrel Trail. A little egret suddenly appeared from a ditch close to the Paddy's pool hide. All around us we could see flocks of golden plover and lapwing restlessly rising and falling across the wet grassland - perhaps a sign that a peregrine or a merlin was hunting in the area.

Golden plover flock over Saltholme
Pochard, tufted duck, mute swan, shoveler, teal and a heron were seen on the Allotment Pool while blackbird, fieldfare, redwing and mistle thrush grazed on the remaining hawthorn berries around the reserve. Occasionally, we heard water rails squealing their courtship songs from deep in the reedbeds.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I try to highlight any interesting landmarks or pieces of art that are close to our destination. Saltholme is surrounded by both natural and man-made landmarks. Teesside is home to Britain's largest art installation, Temenos, by Anish Kapoor, the creator of the Olympic centrepiece, Orbit and this can be seen from the reserve. I'm sure that is isn't possible to fully appreciate the structure from Saltholme reserve, however I found it really interesting to observe how the structure appeared to change shape as we walked around the reserve. At one stage, as we watched the golden plover and lapwing flocks, it looked as if the birds were flying through into a long net. To the right of Temenos, the transporter bridge can also be seen to the south of the reserve and Roseberry Topping provides a notable backdrop to the east.

Temenos by artist Anish Kapoor
A poor photo but a view of birds flying close to Temenos
We knew we were near our LEO spot when we could see a group of people gathered to the right of us along a muddy path. Some very helpful RSPB volunteers guided us, with expert visual descriptions, to the tree where three LEOs sat blinking at us through the crisscross of lichen covered branches. See if you can spot them in the photos.

Long-eared owl number 1
number 2
number 3

It's always wonderful to introduce a birdwatcher to a completely new bird - something that I love to do as much as possible for my guests - but to show people long-eared owls, in fact any owls, always gives me a buzz. They are so enigmatic and regal and I think long-eared owls specifically extend a privilege that allows us to observe them (and be observed) up close. I find looking straight into the eyes of an owl a very humbling experience. This time all the hard work was done for me and I was able to enjoy the experience without having to hunt through the whole copse.

Our next mission was the black-necked grebe (BNG) which had been seen from the Saltholme Pools hide. On our way to the hide, a flock of barnacle geese landed in a field nearby. After trying to explain to my guests where they might have migrated from, we later learned that this flock are feral birds and can be seen at the reserve all year round.

Black-necked grebe

Barnacle geese
Mallard, wigeon, teal, pintail, shoveler, tufted duck and gadwall were present in small numbers on the pool. A female goldeneye fed busily in deeper water. Later, the sun finally burned off the last of the milky whiteness of the atmosphere and we were treated to an autumn glow across the grassland.
Golden plover flocks took on an orange glow. We decided to sit for a while and appreciated them before returning to the visitor centre for the starling murmuration.
Golden plover and lapwing sitting in the autumn sun
From around 4pm, we watched small flocks of starlings making their way from the reserve to the pylons close to the visitor centre. Group by group, they gathered and swirled until an estimated twenty thousand starlings could be seen perching on every available horizontal part of the pylons. Gradually, they left their perches and the murmuration began. Starlings bunched, swirled, dipped and glided until, as if one of them had given the signal, they began funneling down into the reedbed below. A few thousand lazy individuals that had remained on the pylons used this as a cue to retire for the night and a second wave funnelled down to join the others - struggling to find a place in the reedbed. What a fantastic sight. One of the volunteers commented that this was the biggest gathering he had seen yet at the reserve.
It was almost dark now, so we decided to look for a short-eared owl (SEO) over another section of Saltholme Pools and have a cup of tea while we were waiting. No sooner had Linda's cafe made a brew for my guests, a short-eared owl appeared just above the reedbed, perching nicely for us to get a reasonable decent view. Clear skies and an autumn sunset brought an end to our day and we drove home, discussing what we had seen on our day.
Next week we continue our classes on bird adaptations at Rodley Nature Reserve and at the weekend we will be bird ringing on a farm near York. For more information contact Linda at Start Birding on 07778 768719 or email
Don't forget to look for those waxwings!

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Everyone's talking about waxwings

Hello birdwatchers

The word of the month in the birding world has to be waxwings. They're everywhere but if you haven't seen any yet then this is because they are very nomadic and faithful to their favourite places -places that are filled with berries.

In Leeds, one such nomadic flock travels between Woodhouse Square, Hanover Square, Woodhouse Moor, Headingley, Burley and Armley. Small foraging flocks will occasionally go in search of new sources of food so, if you have berries in your garden, keep your eyes peeled for signs of this beautiful bird. Their call is similar to the high trill of the old trim phones (if you are old enough to remember them) and they look very similar to starlings in flight. Once you get your binoculars on them though, they couldn't look less like starlings. The waxwing is a very exotic looking bird with pinkish brown plumage, a long crest, black mask and a yellow stripe on the end of its tail. Its name comes from the red tips on its wing feathers that look as though they are made of wax. For some fantastic detailed photos of waxwing plumage visit the Fair Isle Bird Observatory blog here

waxwing in Leeds (photo by Rod German)

This is really one great reason to take your binoculars everywhere with you as you're likely to bump into them when you are doing your shopping! As many supermarkets plant berry laden shrubs in and around their car parks, this is one of the places that waxwings are regularly seen - even in the middle of the busiest city! Don't be caught out - you'll be kicking yourself if you are unprepared and may not get another chance to see them next year.

Large flocks of waxwings entering Britain in the Autumn can be due to environmental reasons (bad weather or poor berry crop) or because the waxwing population has increased and there is not enough food to support them all. Early indications show that food is generally scarce this year on the continent. Many birds, such as thrushes, woodpigeons, bramblings, redpoll and siskin, have travelled here early this year. That's a lot of birds competing for food. This means that, as food gradually diminishes from preferred sites in the UK, birds will need to "graze" their way around the country. Hence the chance for you to get an unexpected visitor in your garden.

Our mild autumn is providing enough natural food to support large flocks of birds at the moment, even waxwings are feeding on insects while they are available, but as soon as the temperature drops then berries will be in demand.  If you don't have any berries, or if your berry source runs out, you may be able to attract waxwings by skewering apples onto tree branches or sticks in the garden. It may be best to wait until the weather gets cold and food is scarce before doing this thought to get the best results.

This weekend, Start Birding will be travelling to Teesside to the RSPB Saltholme reserve. The link will take you to the latest sightings on the reserve. As well as having their own flock of waxwings, large flocks of wildfowl and waders are now gathering on the reserve. You'll also be able to see the recent installation, Temenos, by the artist Anish Kapoor, from the reserve. Anish Kapoor is the creator of the Olympic centrepiece Orbit.  If you'd like to join me then please call me on 07778 768719 for details.

So what has Start Birding been doing this week. Well, our Rodley classes have been learning about bird adaptations and have been looking at beaks, skulls, legs, feet and bird pellets.

The intricate adaptation of a guillemot beak (bird found dead on the east coast)

Last weekend we had a fantastic time at both our venues. On Saturday, a fantastic starling murmuration and flypasts by peregrine and barn owl, ended our walk about YWT Staveley Carrs. Flocks of greylag geese gathered noisily on the reserve and we also saw fieldfare, redwing, snipe, shoveler, teal, lapwing, little grebe and reed bunting.

View across the lagoon of the new hide at Staveley

Evening light over the reedbed at Staveley

A starling murmuration over Staveley
Resting barn owl (photo by Richard Weil)
 Our Sunday Stroll took us to Bramley Falls Wood for a wonderful autumn walk around this popular Leeds wood. Common woodland bird calls were the focus of this trip and we were able to track nuthatch, treecreeper and great-spotted woodpecker through the woods by listening to their calls. Redwing and fieldfare flocks were found foraging along the canal edge and a singing dipper was found on the River Aire. A solitary grey wagtail fed on the canal overflow.

A canal overflow offers the perfect feeding place for grey wagtail

Autumn colours in Bramley Falls Wood
If you are interested in learning more about Start Birding walks and classes then visit my website on or call me on 07778 768719

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Start Birding has signed up to Twitter!

Yes I know I said that I probably wouldn't do this but I've now got a Twitter account and have sent out my first tweet. I thought I'd dip my toe in the water and see what happened. The aim is to publicise Start Birding to a wider audience and get more people out enjoying wildlife and the outdoors.

Now you can do two things
  1. you can "follow me by email", on the right hand side of the text, to receive email alerts when I've posted a new blog and/or
  2. you can follow me on Twitter by clicking the link 
Who knows where this will lead but I've already found out that someone is out there tweeting all waxwing sightings across the country and I'm linking to other birding tweets too.

The nights are really drawing in now and it is dark by the time I arrive at Rodley Nature Reserve on Monday and Wednesday evenings for my birdwatching classes. On Monday we had to scrape the ice from our cars at the end of the class which was a first for the year. This week we have been learning about the complex subject of migration, how birds navigate and how the weather plays a big part in the process.

Last weekend Start Birding took a long overdue visit to Yorkshire Water's Top Hill Low reserve. The day alternated between mist and autumn sun which brought out the colours of the yellowing larch and the redness of the hawthorn berries.

Top Hill Low is a mixture of large raised reservoirs and semi-natural pools and woodland.
Lots of autumn colour at Top Hill Low

There were a lot of redwing and fieldfare about and we also found a chattering flock of siskin on the alders close to the car park. Tree sparrows occupied their stronghold around the visitor's centre but the feeders weren't in use there on Saturday. There was a lot of activity around the feeders in the woodland close to the D reservoir though and here we saw willow tit and goldcrest. It was lovely to see that so much work had been done to the reserve since my last visit with a new hide being built overlooking Hempholme Meadows. Check out the link above to see the blog post about this. We were lucky in that we saw the belted Galloway before they were taken off the reserve (my favourite cattle). We ambled around at dusk in the hope of seeing barn owl and eventually found one quartering along a ditch close to the D reservoir. By that time we were cold but very happy. 

Below are photos of some of the other birds seen. Top Hill Low is one of my favourite reserves and it was a pleasure to spend some time there again.

European white-fronted goose with a flock of greylag geese

What looked like a first year Greenland white-fronted goose (right) with a greylag

Goldeney male and female with teal, tufted duck and wigeon

This coming weekend, Start Birding will be spending time closer to home. On Saturday we'll be visiting Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's excellent reserve at Staveley where we hope to see water rail, barn owl, yellowhammer, reed bunting and a starling murmuration. After our walk we'll be having a soup stop at the Royal Oak pub in the village before going home.

You can also join me for my new Sunday Strolls programme to local areas around Leeds. This Sunday's trip is a walk around Bramley Falls Wood and a section of the Leeds Liverpool Canal. If you're interested in joining us then please give me a call on 07778 768719 or email me at

Happy birding


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Goodbye October, hello waxwings

Hello birdwatchers

For me, October has been a month of cloudscapes, colour and snipe. I don't think I've ever had so many snipe on my Start Birding trips before.

wonderful cloudscapes over North Cave

Last Saturday we even managed to add a jack snipe to our list. This smaller cousin of the common snipe has a characteristic bobbing jizz. The individual we saw at North Cave Wetlands slept on the edge of the lagoon for a while before performing his bobbing ritual beautifully for the birdwatchers that joined me on the trip.

Jack snipe at North Cave Wetlands

 Autumn was in full swing. Golden and russet leaves were already on the ground; fieldfare and redwing grazed on the berry laden hedgerows and fungi emerged out of the carpet of leaves. We came across a clump of common cavalier, a lovely sable brown fungus with a wide, thin cap and short stipe.

Common cavalier (photo by Rod German)

 A single whooper swan was the first of the winter for most of the party but the main topic of conversation was a family of mute swans that had been joined by a black swan male. The female had taken a shine to the male black swan and was following him everywhere. The male mute swan and two cygnets seemed have been rejected for the time being but the remained close by. A male goldeneye fed enthusiastically on one of the lagoons and goldfinch flocks fed on thistles and teasels.

Whooper swan at North Cave Wetlands

Goldfinches on teasels
On Sunday morning, my Wednesday birdwatchers joined me at Rodley Nature Reserve to practise their birdwatching skills. The lagoons were relatively quiet due to work being done on the reserve to install a fish pass on the river, but we managed to pick up a lot of bird activity on other parts of the reserve. In the two hours that were were there we managed to see, flying overhead, red kite, common snipe, around 40 wigeon, 30 gadwall, kestrel, sparrowhawk and great-spotted woodpecker. Stock dove, redwing and fieldfare sat in nearby hawthorn trees and black-headed and common gull provided some good study material for the beginners class. We finished off the morning by having pie and peas for lunch in the excellent visitor's centre.

This week has been half term so my Monday and Wednesday class have had a much needed break to digest what they have learned so far. However, my Tuesday group met learn more about migration and winter bird songs. Classes start again next week and will cover migration and weather and adaptations of bird anatomy and physiology. If you're interested then please call me to book a place on 07778 768719 or email

November is now upon us and the outgoing migration has almost come to an end. We can now focus on the birds coming into the country from Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Northern Russia and Svalbard. Waxwings have already arrived in the country so watch your berry trees and pray for a visit.

Cotoneaster berries are a magnet for waxwings

An early influx of bramblings indicates that there isn't enough beech mast on the continent to sustain the number of birds feeding there. This would normally be an exciting prospect for us, however we may also not have enough food in the UK this year. These finches will readily go to garden feeders so please make sure that you put out plenty of suitable food and maintain the food supply all winter.

I'm currently reviewing a new bird feeder by Nature's Feast which as 3 compartments, allowing you to offer 3 different kinds of seed.

My birds had a choice of black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts and a high energy seed mixture. I decided to check the seed levels each day to see which was the most popular. The black sunflower was eaten first and more greenfinch visited the garden. Weight for weight, with the husks being on the black sunflowers, there was less edible food in that compartment so I suppose that is why this was emptied first but it has been fun watching the birds take to this new feeder. They usually take a while to use a new feeder, however, this one was in use within the first hour.

It did occur to me that this feeder would be a good option for small gardens with limited capacity for hanging feeders as you can attract more birds into your garden using less space. I've now refilled the compartments and will continue to use it and try different foods. I'll blog about it again when it comes to cleaning time - this is always the test of a good feeder when you're trying to dismantle a feeder with cold fingers!

all for now - Linda