Friday, 13 December 2013

Fight Club

Hello birdwatchers

I'm breaking the first rule of Fight Club by talking about Fight Club. No, I've not taken up street fighting, I'm watching some local blackbirds chasing off their continental cousins on my cotoneaster tree. A flock of about 20 redwing and a handful of non British blackbirds are engaged in combat over berries. A song thrush, a very rare bird in my garden, also joined them them for a short while but, being a timid bird, it didn't like the company and retreated to a more secluded part of the garden.

A song thrush on my hawthorn, surprisingly a rare bird in my garden

I usually only see song thrushes and mistle thrushes singing in neighbouring gardens. They visit my garden infrequently despite it having a lot of suitable places for them to feed. I can understand the song thrush wanting to keep away from its aggressive family members but a mistle thrush normally loves to get involved in family arguments, especially close to Christmas time when there are rich pickings at the garden "table".

I'm hoping the berries last long enough for me to be able to attract fieldfare this year. I've put apples on the ground again to coax the fieldfares but I haven't seen many around Leeds while I've been out on my trips.

Due to us having very few waxwings in the country so far, I'm not holding out much hope that I'll get my first waxwing for the garden this year. I'm keeping an eye on the bird news for the country to build up an overall picture and, when/if any turn up in Leeds I'll let everyone know on my distribution list so, if you want to receive news, then send me your email address.

One of the many waxwings that came to the UK last year

The weather continues to be mild and we've not had many days when the systems have come from the north and east to assist migration. Consequently numbers of winter visitors remain low in the country. The exception to this has been the surge of stormy weather that hit us last week. Thursday's storms created havoc for many people along the east coast and also for our treasured nature reserves in the area.

I received an email from the RSPB highlighting the devastation caused to places such as Snettisham in Norfolk. It is estimated that over £300,000 of damage has been caused in total to RSPB reserves by the initial storm and the spring tides that followed and an RSPB appeal has been put in place to collect valuable funds. Damaged sites include Saltholme in the north-east and Titchwell in North Norfolk which suffered damage to the dunes and boardwalk. Thankfully, the recent Coastal Change Project effectively minimised the impact of the storm at this reserve. No doubt other conservation organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, will be in need of funds to repair our much loved sites including those in Scotland, Northumberland, Cleveland, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and the south east.

Damage at RSPB Snettisham

I know that conservation organisations are often asking us for extra donations but I just want to draw attention to how important all these areas are for over-wintering birds. The UK is a haven for wildlife during the winter months and, without our reserves functioning normally and providing the right habitat to feed, it may mean that some species may not make it to breed next spring. Grey seals have suffered badly at Donna Nook and the effects of seawater entering freshwater lagoons will stretch into spring and summer as our water voles, grass snakes and aquatic insect life struggle to survive the harsh conditions.

Damage at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Spurn Point has been the worst recorded since January 1953 and the profile of the beach on the Spurn Peninsula has significantly changed as a result. Some of the Hebridean sheep that graze on the reserve were also washed away. Luckily the reserve's infrastructure survived and I'm sure that staff and volunteers will be working hard to make the site accessible again. Keep up-to-date with the news at Spurn by clicking on the link above and read the BBC report here

Well, another year is almost over and it has been the most fantastic one for Start Birding trips. I hope that you've been following our progress over the last 12 months. Last weekend we visited the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Denaby Ings in South Yorkshire for a half day and had a lovely view of a kingfisher which, for a moment, looked as if it was going to join us in the hide as it flew towards us. Goosander, pochard, tufted duck, shoveler, gadwall and mallard represented the duck family while cormorant and heron stood sentry over the lagoon. In the woodland we found great-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, treecreeper and goldcrest and flocks of redwing "tseeted" at us throughout the walk. A single fieldfare alerted us with its "chack chack" call but we didn't manage to see it. Good views of buzzard and a sparrowhawk enhanced our experience of the site and we were also very lucky with the weather given the amount of rain and cloud that Leeds had experienced that morning.

Cormorant at Denaby Ings

My Monday evening class finished their sessions on environmental adaptations and began their classes on wildfowl by studying swans and geese. This coming week we'll start learning about the ducks that can be found in the UK. The Wednesday class looked at water rails last week and, this week, learned about herons, egrets and bitterns. They'll complete the 2013 classes by looking at starlings and murmurations. The Tuesday morning birdwatchers visited Rodley Nature Reserve and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's wonderful reserve at Adel Dam and, on a very still and sunny morning, we found teal, goosander, tufted duck, great-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, mandarin duck and, the star of the show, a water rail sunning itself at the back of the lake.

A water rail at Adel Dam Nature Reserve

While we were at Adel Dam, we saw yet another strange heron, this time sitting in the water. So far in November and December we've seen 3 dead herons at Top Hill Low and a heron lying down on two occasions at Rodley Nature Reserve. This one was behaving very strangely indeed and I'm wondering whether there is anything wrong with our herons - if anyone has any information then please get in touch.

A heron sitting in the water at Adel Dam

Same heron lying down in the water

Over the last few days of the year, birdwatchers will join me at Townclose Hills, Temple Newsam, Yeadon Tarn, Fairburn Ings and Rodley Nature Reserve again and, in the next couple of days, my programme of events for January to March 2014 will be winging its way to everyone on my list.

Don't forget that Start Birding can provide you with gift vouchers for Christmas and birthdays at very short notice and prices start at £10. See the "Christmas Gift Voucher" tab on this blog or visit my web page.

This will be my last blog of 2013 - join me in January to hear about my best birding moments of this year and my favourite bird sightings. Thank you so much for supporting my business over the last year - it has been lovely spending time with you and I look forward to seeing you all again in 2014.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Burnished Autumn Colours

With an unexpected day off I thought I'd use the time to update my blog - where does the time go?

Thankfully since my last post I've been busy running Start Birding trips and enjoying the stunning colours that this Autumn has given us. It is probably a good thing that the autumn is almost over as I think my customers may be tired of hearing me swooning out loud at the sight of all the reds, oranges and golds from leaves and berries. It's also been the most fantastic year for fungi and I'm still processing my photos and trying to identify the ones I've seen (I'll definitely need some help with that). I think we found fungi on almost all the walks in October and November.

Autumn colours and an "oak leafed" sky at North Cave Wetlands

Since my last post, my three indoor classes have been learning about bird songs and calls; winter wildfowl, raptors and waders; buntings, larks and pipits; finding birds in different habitats; migration and weather; adaptations to environment; gardening to attract wildlife and how to be a better birdwatcher. If you're interested in learning about birds in a more formal way then please get in touch by emailing to find out about indoor classes or visit my website

Outdoor classes have visited a variety of venues including RSPB Fairburn Ings; Carsington Water; Rodley Nature Reserve; Swillington Ings; Nosterfield Nature Reserve and Nosterfield Quarry; Yorkshire Water's Tophill Low; Pugney's Country Park; YWT Staveley Nature Reserve; Calverley Woods; Bramley Falls Wood; WWT Martin Mere; Angler's Country Park; Rabbit Ings and Hawthorne Farm which is off the Leeds ring road. You can still join me for an outdoor birdwatching class before the end of the year and I'm currently writing my next programme of events. To get a list of outdoor birdwatching classes email me on classes start at 2 hours or you can join me for a half day or full day. Regular customers can also book 3 day weekends to venues such as Scotland, Norfolk and Northumberland.

The little known Hawthorne Farm on the outer ring road in Leeds at Whinmoor

Little grebe at Rodley Nature Reserve

We've managed to find snipe at most places after scanning around with the telescope and some have been surprisingly active.

Snipe at Nosterfield Quarry

At least one young barn owl was still present at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Staveley Nature Reserve and we were able to watch its parents hunting between showers of rain. Numbers of wildfowl were low on the reserve, due to the late summer the wind direction being southerly and westerly, but flocks of redwing and fieldfare had arrived and we had great views of water rail, green woodpecker, kestrel and reed buntings. A small starling murmuration brought the day to a close and we walked back listening tawny owls calling from the wood. Have a look at this short film by Andrew Stringer showing some of the other wildlife that can be found at Staveley.

Barn owl

Kingfisher hunting from a secluded spot at RSPB Fairburn Ings

Lapwing sitting on a tern raft at North Cave Wetlands
We managed to find a sparrowhawk resting after a stoop at North Cave Wetlands

goldfinch having a bath at North Cave Wetlands

Whooper swans at WWT Martin Mere

Pintail at WWT Martin Mere

Obviously, being out all day looking at real birds isn't enough - at the end of a long day's birding at Idle Valley, we were sent a heavenly bird with the setting sun.

Bird-shaped cloud seen at the end of a recce trip to Idle Valley

Friday, 18 October 2013

From Albania to Alkborough

Hello birdwatchers

The last four weeks have been a little different than normal in that I actually managed to leave the UK for a much needed holiday at the end of September. So, after an excellent shearwater cruise out of Bridlington harbour and a short walk around Middleton Park in Leeds, I was off to Albania, Montenegro and Croatia.

The hardest part of the planning stage was finding a guide in Albania who could take me to see my target species, Dalmatian pelican. I had heard about the state of the roads in Albania so I wasn't looking forward to the prospect of having to drive myself on a 200km round trip to Divjaka to visit Karavaska lagoon, an important breeding area for the species.

Dalmatian pelicans on Karavasta Lagoon, Albania

Dalmatian pelican with our grey heron on Karavasta Lagoon, Albania

After a few hours of research, I'd found some leads but my usual sources of information didn't provide any local birdwatching guides. Just as I was giving up hope and was working out how I was going to get myself there, I heard back from a small business, Albanian Eagle Tours, who arranged access onto the site, lunch in the national park and for me to be picked up from my hotel. My host, Andi, was great company and, not being a birdwatcher himself, I was surprised at how patiently he indulged my need to look at everything that moved. By the end of the day we were both watching birds. Perhaps I sowed the seeds and turned him into a budding birder. One thing is for sure. No way would I have been able to drive on those roads without dying or having a nervous breakdown and no way would I have found the pelicans on my own so thank you so much Andi.

We looked at the lagoon from every angle and, although we were viewing birds from quite a distance I managed to get great views of the pelicans, pygmy cormorants, Caspian terns, greater flamingo, great white egret, little egret and some of our winter passage waders through my scope. The distance, and the heat haze, made digiscoping difficult but you'll be able to see the remains of the "curly" crown on the pelicans above which is part of their breeding plumage. Many birds had left the pools and channels for their wintering grounds but resident kingfishers provided something to look at as we walked back to the car.


Views of the Karavasta Lagoon area
The small part of Albania that I saw on the rest of my 3 day visit showed the destructive effect the political situation was having on the countryside. Many wetland habitats had been destroyed to build hotels on the coast, and raw sewage was being pumped directly into the sea. Hopefully the new head of government will make some lasting changes - I'd like to return one day to see whether the situation improves and visit other areas of the country.
The next few days of our holiday took us to Montenegro where we stayed in Ulcinj, Kolasin and Perast. We visited Lake Skadar and the national parks at Durmitor and Lovcen, birdwatching whenever we could on route. Our planned trip to the lagoons at Ulcinj, a little known birdwatching area on a working salt extraction site, didn't work out as planned. For some reason that we couldn't quite work out, we were weren't allowed on the site on the only day that we were in the area. Another reason for a return trip to the Balkans. Birds seen in Montenegro included hundreds of pygmy cormorants; black-necked grebe, Slavonian grebe, long-legged buzzard, black kite, goshawk, lesser kestrel, lesser spotted woodpecker, whinchat, icterine warbler, zitting cisticola, wood warbler, spotted and semi-collared flycatcher, alpine chough and rock bunting.

Durmitor National Park
Our final two days took us to Dubrovnik in Croatia. It is impossible to visit this city without becoming a text book tourist so we did all the usual things like walking around the city walls; taking a trip in a glass bottomed boat to see the fish and riding the cable car to the top of the mountain. Apart from the sound of cow bells, it was quiet on the mountain and only melodious warbler and sombre tit were added to the list. We spent most of the time looking at the many grasshopper and butterfly species that we weren't equipped to identify. Back in the old town at Dubrovnik, lesser kestrel could be seen hunting from a nearby island but the star species was alpine swift. Unlike our swifts, the alpine swift stays in its breeding area until after the post breeding moult so, even though it was the end of September, there were a lot of birds around. Their cackling calls could be heard through the morning and the evening and it really was a welcome sight to watch the low flypasts as the sun went down. 
Alpine swifts over Dubrovnik

On our way back to the UK we reflected on what a fantastic holiday it had been. We met some wonderful people and really enjoyed the local food, wine and beer. I look forward to a return visit.
The birding continued soon after our return with a ringing trip in the Lower Derwent Valley. This time we managed to get blue tit, great tit, coal tit, dunnock, blackbird and goldfinch in the mist nets. Everyone had the chance to hold and ring a bird, under the close supervision of our host and we also got the chance to see a barn owl chick.
A dunnock caught in the Lower Derwent Valley
Subjects covered in my weekday indoor classes included "Being ready for anything: how to get the most out of your birding trips and what to wear" and "Introduction to the dipper" while weekday outdoor classes visited Knotford Nook and Nosterfield.
Greylag with pink-footed geese at Nosterfield
 Which takes me to Alkborough which we visited on the morning of the 12th October. It was a bit of a dreary day but thankfully, the rain only managed a light drizzle which didn't affect our plans. We managed to see marsh harrier, little egret, avocet, green sandpiper, ruff, curlew, black-tailed godwit, teal, wigeon and shelduck as well as our first winter flocks of redwing. Seven whooper swans and a couple of pink-footed geese flew over our heads. We finished our day at RSPB Blacktoft Sands and were able to compare spotted redshank and common redshank. Snipe could be seen on almost every lagoon. A real treat was to see a weasel running towards us on the path as we made our way back to the car and we also found an angle shades moth emerging from the leaf litter in the car park.

Snipe at RSPB Blacktoft Sands
Angle shades moth
Find out what happens next at Start Birding indoor and outdoor classes by signing up to my next blog to receive email alerts.  

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

There's a nip in the air!

Hello birdwatchers

We're already 3 weeks into my new programme and on the last couple of trips there has been an autumnal nip in the air. The gloves have been on this month already!

My new group of birdwatchers are meeting at Hollybush Conservation Centre on Monday evenings and, so far, have been learning how to use their binoculars effectively; how to choose a good fieldguide; note taking and sketching and bird identification.

My Wednesday evening birdwatching group are in their second year at Hollybush Conservation Centre and are now learning about different bird families, individual species and birds song.

Outdoor classes are still taking place on Tuesday mornings, Saturdays and some Sundays. So far, the Tuesday birdwatchers have visited Golden AcreAdel Dam, Breary Marsh and Paul's Pond.

a heron at Adel Dam

On this morning's visit to Breary Marsh and Paul's Pond we looked at differences between adult rooks and crows and how immature birds can cause confusion. We also watched house martins, sand martins and swallows feeding up to increase their weight before their outward migration. A single female wigeon on Paul's Pond could have come from as far away as Arctic Russia to spend the winter in the UK.

female wigeon on Paul's Pond
We were fortunate on our planned trip to Druridge Bay in Northumberland that an American bird, a white-rumped sandpiper, was showing well at East Chevington Nature Reserve managed by Northumberland Wildlife Trust so, after first visiting another one of their reserves, Cresswell Ponds, we dropped in to have a look at this little wader. We also managed to see the swooping accelerated bursts of black tern flight and a couple of Sandwich terns could be heard calling from the lagoon. At Cresswell, we'd been watching a few snipe close to the hide with redshank, ruff and greenshank.

Rafts of common scoter fed on the sea close to the shoreline at Duridge Pools Nature Reserve, the Trust's third reserve in that bay, and gannet, red-throated diver, shearwater and great skua were also seen. On the shoreline we were able to add sanderling and a single knot, still in summer plumage.

Snipe at Cresswell Ponds

Tufted duck at Cresswell Ponds

Greenshank at Cresswell Ponds

Dunlin at Cresswell Ponds

Last Saturday, Start Birding offered its first trip to Paull Holme Strays on the Humber estuary. This 200 acre site, which was created by the Environment Agency as part of a flood risk management scheme, provides a fantastic feeding opportunity for thousands of waders, gulls and wildfowl during the autumn and winter.

Cloudscapes over the Humber at Paull Holme Strays

Dramatic cloudscapes and sunshine enhanced our birding experience on this visit and we watched flocks of golden plover, redshank and dunlin. These were interspersed with smaller numbers of little egret, avocet, grey and ringed plover, black-tailed godwits and lapwing all of which were terrorised by two hunting peregrine falcons. Our first one, a young bird, made an unsuccessful stoop then flew over our heads to begin its circling climb, gaining altitude before its next stoop to shifts some gulls off the estuary. It didn't have any luck the second time either and we watched it fly off into the distance. Later, we were alerted to another hunting peregrine as we watched golden plover and lapwing bunch high over the lagoon. An adult bird was quickly spotted, which also flew over our heads after an unsuccessful stoop. A grey seal was seen in the Humber close to the shoreline.

Little egret at Paull Holme Strays

We finished off our day at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's North Cave Wetlands and added some extra wildfowl, water birds, common and green sandpiper and passerines, including two southbound migrants, wheatear and whinchat, to our list of birds for the day.

A young wheatear at North Cave Wetlands
A whinchat at North Cave Wetlands
Our final trips for September take place this weekend. I'm hoping for good weather this coming Saturday we sail out of Bridlington harbour on our annual RSPB Shearwater cruise. We hope to see Manx and sooty shearwater, great skua, winter auks and gannets. We'll then move on to Filey to look for purple sandpiper and to see if anything has turned up on migration.

On Sunday I'm leading a free walk for the Friends of Middleton Park in Leeds so do come along if you're free.

I've noticed on my travels that there is a great crop of berries this autumn which will hopefully provide plenty of food to sustain our birds through the winter months.

Sloes - the fruit of the blackthorn tree
Hedgerows are full of blackberries

Flower meadows provide seed for goldfinches

Join me in October as we watch our autumn migrants increasing in numbers. We'll be ringing birds just south of York and visiting Alkborough Flats near Scunthorpe; RSPB Blacktoft Sands; Carsington Water in Derbyshire; Nosterfield; Rodley Nature Reserve; RSPB Fairburn Ings; RSPB St Aidan's and Mickletown Ings - a SSSI close to St Aidan's reserve.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Post Birdfair Blues

Hello birdwatchers

After 3 days at Rutland Water talking to fellow birders, watching events and walking around the extensive Rutland Water reserve, I'm now back at my laptop feeling a little deflated. It has been a weekend filled with friends, old and new, and some amazing views of ospreys.

The last event I attended on Sunday was a celebration of ospreys led by one of my conservation heros, Roy Dennis, and Tim Mackrill the Rutland Osprey Project Officer. I think for the first time ever at a Birdfair, a choir, Global Harmony, sang songs originating from Scotland and Africa to mark the 3,000 mile journey the ospreys take before and after each breeding season. Scottish singers, Fiona Kennedy and Ruriarh MacDonald, performed their new single, Fly Lady Fly which was inspired by Lady, one of the Loch of the Lowes ospreys. You may be able to watch it for yourself on Birdfair TV once it gets updated with this year's highlights but, in the meantime, you may still be able to find the Rutland ospreys on the nest before they leave for Africa.
One of this year's osprey chicks at Rutland Water

As I turn the pages of my diary, I can't feel deflated for long. I'm getting excited about the coming season of trips and the new indoor classes at Hollybush Conservation Centre in Kirkstall, Leeds. There is still time to book your place on my new beginner's class which will take place on Monday evenings from the beginning of September.

Between September and December I'll not only be visiting local beauty spots in and around Leeds but I'll also be running trips to fantastic places such as Northumberland; the Humber estuary; Alkborough and RSPB Blacktoft Sands; Carsington Water; Nosterfield; Staveley; Martin Mere; the Idle Valley; Denaby Ings and Top Hill Low.

You can also join me on the RSPB's Shearwater Cruise out of Bridlington Harbour in September (you'll need to book early for that so that I can get tickets). All being well, if the weather is suitable, we'll be visiting a well known bird ringer in York at the beginning of October to help ring, record and release birds in the Lower Derwent Valley.

Learn more about birds by attending a ringing session
I hope that has whetted your appetite and that you'll be emailing me soon to book a place on one of the trips or to find out more details. You can also sign up to receive my regular newsletters which will keep you up to date on future classes. All outdoor classes will give you the chance to view birds through a high powered telescope and I also bring along my popular travelling cafe.

Hope to see you soon or give me a call to find out more on 07778 768719

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Sun, sea and Yorkshire Day

I really thought that I would be able to catch up with myself over July and August but how wrong I was. Life events have pulled me in all kinds of unexpected directions and the old adage "best laid plans" has been mentioned on more than one occasion.

Well, we can only do what we can do and, over the years I've learned that people are far more important that lists of jobs to do at the computer. That being so, I hope that I've managed to look after the people side of life at the very least. I've also been kind to myself and spent some time enjoying the sunshine, celebrating Yorkshire Day, paddling in the sea and reflecting on life.

I'm grateful that the people side of my life often involves watching birds and, this year, July and the beginning of August have been filled with more people and bird activities than past Start Birding programmes. My Tuesday and Wednesday classes have experienced their first full day trips and have visited new habitats to watch previously unseen species of birds.

Yesterday we were watching ospreys at Rutland Water. There was an air of excitement and expectation as staff and volunteers prepared the site for the International Bird Fair. I'll be making my annual pilgrimage on Friday 16th August and meeting up with friends and birding colleagues from around the world. I really recommend a visit - have a look at what's on offer here

Here are some photographic (I use that word loosely!) reminiscences of July and August so far.

Bridled and normal forms of common guillemot at RSPB Bempton Cliffs

Puffin at RSPB Bempton Cliffs

Gannet and chick at RSPB Bempton Cliffs
Lesser black-backed gull at YWT North Cave
Grey heron at RSPB Blacktoft Sands


Snipe at RSPB Blacktoft Sands

Toadlet at RSPB Blacktoft Sands

Ospreys at Rutland Water

Little egret at Rutland Water
For the rest of August, apart from travelling back down to Rutland Water, I'll be focusing on reserves nearer to home. Join me at RSPB St Aidan's in Leeds; Angler's Country Park, Pugney's Country Park and Calder Wetlands in Wakefield or Nosterfield in North Yorkshire. Call or email for further details.