Monday, 29 December 2014

Best birding moments of 2014

It's that time of year again when I look back at 12 months of birdwatching classes and trips with the aim of listing my top 5 birding moments. I think that this year has been easier than most of the others, mainly because so much has happened locally (which gives me an extra buzz).

I've been so lucky to share most of my 2014 highlights with regular members of my birdwatching classes, or my personal friends, by far the best way to experience wildlife. However, with focusing on birds nearer to home, this year's total is only 201 (with 2 days to go), down on last year's total.

Well, here is my list in reverse order:

Number 5: Getting close up views of a female (therefore more brightly coloured) red-necked phalarope at North Cave Wetlands. 

Red-necked phalarope at North Cave Wetlands

Number 4: Finding dippers breeding on my local patch in Leeds

Dipper chick being fed by its parent

Number 3: Talking briefly on Radio 4's Saturday Live about swifts coming to my nest boxes at home.

Click to hear the broadcast

Number 2: finding a woodcock sitting out in the sun about 3 feet from me at Bolton Abbey. So close that I could  almost have touched it.

Spot the woodcock sitting so close that non of my group could see it!
And (drum roll) the Best Birding Moment of 2014 was the first successful breeding attempt by swifts in new nest boxes at a friend's house in Gledhow. Here is a photo of just one of the birds just before it fledged in September.

A 'home grown' Gledhow swift

My favourite 'other wildlife' moment was watching a stoat chasing a rabbit the full length of Snettisham Beach in Norfolk.

Not my photo but this was very close to the amazing sight

If you'd like to find out more about my birdwatching classes for beginners then please get in touch via the form on the right of this page.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Torrential rain? Not at Staveley!

It just goes to show that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. That was certainly true on Saturday for Start Birding's trip to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Staveley Nature Reserve near Ripon. We set off in pouring rain with a forecast of an unrelenting downpour for the whole of our 1pm - dusk class. Sightings of our crepuscular target species, barn owl, water rail and starlings performing a mini-murmuration were impossible to realise under these conditions but we were happy to look for birds on the lagoons in the comfort of the two public hides.

Imagine how our spirits lifted when, after less than an hour, the rain stopped. We'd managed to dry out in the warm, straw bale hide while watching birds such as wigeon, teal and goldeneye from their breeding grounds in the north and resident little grebe, sparrowhawk and kestrel. Feeling snug, and smug, we continued to the next hide finding great spotted woodpecker, a late migrating chiffchaff and incomers from Scandinavia, redwing and fieldfare. An excellent marsh tit 'pitchou-ed' at us from the woodland and showed briefly.

We took our seats in the well placed but draughtier smaller hide for the grand finale just as an autumn glow was spreading over the reserve.

Autumn colours and bright skies at Staveley despite the bad forecast

Many an evening has been spent here waiting and watching for something wonderful. While watching tree sparrow and reed bunting at the feeders, a willow tit appeared showing its 'snatch and grab' behaviour as it fed on sunflower seeds. Eventually it stood still just long enough for us to see its pale wing panel and bull neck which distinguishes it from marsh tit. Finding both at the reserve was a rare treat. Two minutes later its 'churr churr churr' call could be heard from low down in the vegetation.

Willow tit

As the day waned, our first target bird emerged from the reed bed, a water rail. This shy grey, black and brown bird is a beautiful contrast of colour, striations and speckles. The bright red decurved bill is only visible with binoculars as the light begins to fail. It tip-toed silently in a gap in the reeds, searching for sticklebacks and shrimps, before quickly running for cover.

water rail at dusk (photo: Rodney German)
Small groups of starlings began to roam the skies and then a barn owl emerged from its roost. It perched for a few minutes, quartered the rough grassland looking for voles and disappeared from view.

barn owl

The water rail emerged again. The starlings were gaining in number and then, another barn owl awoke. We didn't know where to look. We split into 3 groups so that we could keep track of the activity. Eventually, it was the swirling murmuration that held our attention. Not the thousands of birds seen in places like Gretna but a beautiful display nevertheless.

small groups of starlings gather at Staveley before their final murmuration

Then, unexpectedly, the starlings funnelled into the reeds right in front of the hide with some urgency. An amazing sight on its own but then a male peregrine sliced through the air in pursuit, giving us an amazing fly past. It landed in a willow on the other side of the water before taking off again, chased by crows. Once the peregrine had gone, the starlings chattered loudly from the safety of the reed bed. Other birds joined in, all invisible in the dense mass of golden stems.

As we made our way back to the car park for a warm cup of tea, we watched barn owls hunting low over the fields. A truly magical afternoon.

I'll be running another trip to Staveley in the mid-winter so please email for details and to book your place.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Waiting for the wader and wildfowl spectacular

When everyone starts to mourn the loss of the summer and dreads the thought of the dark nights, that is when I start to get excited about the months to come.

Am I mad? Well some might say that I am, but I get this feeling because I know what is coming. I know that, with every hour that those days are getting shorter, more and more wader and wildfowl species are making their way to the UK from the Arctic. Birds from as far away as northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Scandinavia, Franz Josef Land and other parts of Arctic Russia.

hundreds of thousands of birds will leave their breeding grounds in this region to overwinter in the UK
Some of these birds will start their migration as early as late June. These are birds that didn't reach sexual maturity and only made the journey originally as a practise run, or they could have attempted to breed but couldn't find a mate. Those arriving in July may have mated but their eggs or chicks were predated. It is a hostile world in the Arctic and there are only a few short weeks to produce the next generation. If it doesn't work out the first time then there isn't much hope of having suitable weather conditions for long enough to warrant a second try.

So the autumn (outward) migration starts early - when we're eating ice creams and paddling in the sea. It is also a leisurely affair, food and survival being the only real motivators. This year we've had favourable and prolonged weather conditions which has meant that migration has reached its peak slightly later than usual. It is certainly in full swing now though. And not just wildfowl and waders, many other species of bird also arrive in their thousands such as redwing, fieldfare, starling, goldcrest, brambling and blackbird. If you've got more than the usual number of blackbirds in your garden at the moment then some of them will be from the continent. It's also a great time to look and listen for redwings. See if you can hear migrating redwings on clear, still nights as they migrate in from Scandinavia. If you listen closely you'll hear a 'tseep' sound from above.

Keep up to date on the movements of birds by following the very informative British Trust for Ornithology's Bird Migration Blog. You'll be able to read about which American birds have been blown off their migratory flyway and have ended up in the UK due to westerly winds over the Atlantic.  No one knows whether they'll ever make it back safely - all we do know is that they disappear.

Have a look at the map of the flyways below. Ours is the East Atlantic Flyway but we often get birds from other flyways depending on the weather.

Map showing migration flyways

 Anyway, back to the wildfowl and waders. The best place to see migrating wildfowl and waders in Yorkshire is at Spurn National Nature Reserve. Flocks of waders are already gathering on the Humber. The majority of these are knot. You'll also be able to see pink-footed geese, brent geese and whooper swans over the coming months. Follow the action on the Spurn Bird Observatory website.

Many of these birds will eventually move on to the Wash which is why I'm feeling excited because of my  Wader and Wildfowl Spectacular tour in North Norfolk on Thursday 20th to Saturday 22nd November. Here we will see thousands of knot and other waders swirling around the beaches of North Norfolk and we'll witness the sights and sounds of enormous flocks of pink-footed geese lifting off the Wash at dawn. We'll also look for whooper and Bewick swan, brent geese, European white-fronted geese and the scarcer bean goose.

One winter weekend just isn't enough and I'll be heading off to Dumfries and Galloway for another Winter Collection at D&G tour in January 2015. Here we'll see whooper swans from Iceland, Greenland white-fronted geese and thousands of barnacle geese, pink-footed geese and scaup which is a sea duck that gathers in the Solway and Loch Ryan near Stranraer.

A flock of pink footed geese

Of course there will be lots of other opportunities to Start Birding throughout the autumn and winter months so get in touch to find out about classes running from 2 hours to a full day.  I'm based in Leeds and run local trips in the city and around Yorkshire. I also travel to other counties to spend the day in some of the UK's best birding sites. Click on the other tabs for more information or visit my website

I'm going to be busy so, if I'm not blogging for a while, catch up on my day-to-day birdwatching by 'Liking' my Facebook page Facebook/StartBirding and by following me on Twitter@StartBirding

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Fledglings, festivals and the Tour de France

Hello birdwatchers

I'm feeling slightly embarrassed at not keeping up to my blog as often as I used to although I have been spending a lot of time posting news on my Facebook page. I hope you've had a chance to see it. If not then please click on the Start Birding Facebook link.

It has been a truly marvellous spring and summer in the UK and the majority of my classes have been held in warm sunshine.

The last few weeks have been spent rearing a brood of blackbirds and photographing the first young swifts from a new colony in Gledhow. The smallest blackbird didn't make it but I'm hoping that the remaining blackbird, and the swift fledglings will survive the hazards of autumn and winter and eventually rear their own young.

our baby blackbirds (two out of 3 successfully fledged)

A young swift at a new colony in Gledhow, Leeds

young swift watching an adult go by

Also new in Leeds was the brand new, and very successful , artificial sand martin bank at Rodley Nature Reserve. Visitors to the reserve have been able to watch adults feeding chicks, for the first time, right the way through the spring and summer.

Over the last couple of months, I've spent a great deal of time at RSPB St Aidan's, varying the trips by taking different routes into the reserve. Astley Lane has given us the opportunity to look for little owl; the Mickletown Ings route provided sedge and reed warbler at close quarters and the Swillington route took us through dense scrub to look Sylvia and Phyloscopus warblers. Each time we've made it to the eastern reedbed we've seen black-necked grebe with chicks. It has been a good year to compare grebe chicks of different species and varying degrees of 'humbug' stripes.

Black-necked grebe with chick
great crested grebe with chicks

Little grebe chicks

The other most memorable trips were to Upper Teesdale, Bolton Abbey, YWT Staveley, YWT North Cave, Alkborough Flats, YWT Spurn Point, Rutland Water and RSPB Bempton Cliffs.

Our trip to Alkborough in July

It has been a summer of celebrations with the RSPB Leeds Group celebrating its 40th anniversary; two members of my (still running) '2005' class jointly celebrating their 60th birthdays and my dad enjoying his 80th year with a visit to Upper Teesdale.

RSPB Leeds Local Group celebrate their 40th anniversary at Rodley Nature Reserve
I took part in this year's Burley Festival at Burley-in-Wharfedale and really enjoyed myself teaching a 3 hour class. It was great meeting everyone and I hope to see you all again in the near future.

Teaching at the Burley Festival

Now I'm understanding why I've felt so busy! On top of all this the first Hen Harrier Day was organised to coincide with the start of the not so 'glorious 12th' grouse shooting season. It was a shame the weather was so bad but many people turned up to events across the country.

I, and thousands of other people, attended the 26th annual Birdfair at Rutland Water in August and took a day out to do some birding on this vast reserve then, a couple of weeks ago, it was the Spurn Migration Festival. Take a look at this film to give you a flavour of the Migfest - I'll look forward to seeing you there next year.

It has been wonderful to be in Yorkshire over the summer with the Grand Depart of the Tour de France taking place in Leeds and Leeds Rhinos winning the Challenge Cup for the first time since 1999. September is already in full swing and I'm already writing my next blog featuring migrating birds. 

Happy birding!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Tommy Noddys and Cuddy Ducks

As business grows there is always more to do and I've realised, now that I have Facebook and @StartBirding on Twitter, that I've not been updating my blog as often as I used to.

I've just got back from leading my annual trip to Northumberland, land of Tommy Noddys and Cuddy ducks, so I thought I'd make this the subject of this month's blog and take you on a journey around this wonderful county. Keep reading to find out what these names mean.

My companions first started coming to classes as early as 2005 when they began learning about birds at (what was then) Park Lane College in Leeds, now Leeds City College. We now meet in a conservatory, belonging to one member of the group, during the winter months. Each year in June we travel to Northumberland and vary the mix of birdwatching sites from year to year.

This year, with full winter gear in tow due to a terrible weather forecast, we headed for Seahouses on our first day to take a trip to the Farne Islands. The sea was flat calm and the weather was mild but heavy downpours were expected. This kept the crowds down and we almost had the boat to ourselves.

Guillemots surround us as we make our way around the Farne Islands

We were taken around the islands to look at seals, puffins (known locally as Tommy Noddys), guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and eiders (also known as Cuddy Ducks). Gannets could be seen flying to and fro from Bass Rock, which is just off the coast of North Berwick, and we were able to age the individual birds by looking at their feather patterns.

Grey seals can be seen in large groups off the coast of Northumberland

We landed on Inner Farne, the closest island to Seahouses, which belongs to the National Trust. Sandwich terns nest on the shore here and, if you look very closely, you can find a ringed plover nesting among the pebbles.

ringed plover can be found nesting on pebble beaches 

It was then time to put on our hats and face the needle sharp beaks of the Arctic terns. I'm certain that these birds queue up for the best places to attack every visitor that arrives on the island and I'm sure that they are getting more aggressive as each year goes by. They nest along side the boardwalk and fly up to peck you as soon as you get close to the nest. You know that you're going to be targeted when you hear their cackling call and very soon afterwards you'll feel the thud on your head. If you stand still, you can get them to settle on you and pose for a photo.

Arctic tern attack on Inner Farne

If you're lucky you can get them to settle on your head
Moving further along the boardwalk, we found the common tern nesting sites and were able to compare them to the Arctics. Arctic terns have a deep red bill and very short, deep red legs while common terns have a more orange-red bill with a black tip and slightly longer orange-red legs. These species are difficult to distinguish in flight so birdwatchers often refer to them as 'comic' terns (common or Arctic). The length of the bird's tails, calls, flight and feeding patterns and translucency of the wing are also used as clues to identification.

Common terns - look for the black tip to their orange-red beaks

Sandwich terns and puffins
 Further along the path, the puffins start to appear in small groups and another Sandwich tern colony can usually be found at the edge of the puffin burrows amongst the clumps of sorrel and campion. From time to time an eery groaning noise can be heard from deep inside a burrow. This is a puffin on the nest.

Puffin heading towards a burrow

As we approached the lighthouse we turned left towards the steep cliff and watched puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shag on their nests. We looked for bridled guillemots, a mutation of the guillemot that shows a white spectacle around the eye. I think around 4% of the guillemots in this area show this form.

Bridled and normal guillemot

Shag and chick on Inner Farne

Kittiwake on eggs
Puffins gathering on the cliffs
All around there were sounds of seabirds. Walking back along the boardwalk, more puffins loitered around their burrows, hounded by gulls. In contrast to the clown-like puffins, eider females were barely noticeable as they sat motionless among the vegetation.

Puffins at their burrows

Female eider on her nest

The Arctic terns gave us a good send off as we made our way back to the boat and we headed off back to Seahouses watching hundreds of seabirds busily searching for food to take back to their chicks. Read more about the Farne Islands and the puffins on the National Trust website.

On our second day, after a pre-breakfast walk, we travelled to St Abb's Head in Scotland to have a walk along a beautiful stretch of coastline. Here we saw farmland birds, rock pipit and more nesting seabirds including fulmar.

St Abb's Head

Pied wagtail


We then travelled south again to Lindisfarne or Holy Island. This island is accessible by car until high tide. Here we saw bar-tailed godwit, ringed plover and rock pipit in the harbour and masses of eider, common scoter and seals on the sandbars beyond.

Lindisfarne harbour
spot the rock pipit chick
Our pre-breakfast walk on the last day gave us some entertainment in the form of 3 hares running around the lane. We watched them for a while before they galloped back into the fields.

3 hares on the country lane
After packing, we set off south for Druridge Bay visiting Cresswell Ponds and Druridge Pools. We found little gull, avocet, black-tailed godwit and stonechat around the pools and were treated to a fantastic display from harbour porpoises and dolphins (species unknown) as we looked out to sea from the sand dunes. We also saw a red-throated diver in breeding plumage.

male stonechat with caterpillar
a very poor photo of a couple of spoonbills at Druridge Pools
Finding two spoonbills at Druridge Pools was a perfect end to a perfect 3 days - thanks to my group for their company and to whoever was responsible for keeping the rain away until we got home.

If you'd like to learn more about my 3 day trips then please contact me for more information.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Spring migration and sausages!

Hello birdwatchers

March has been an exciting month so far with even a little time to learn a new skill. More of that later.

Over the last month, my indoor classes have focused on what to expect during the spring migration. We've looked at the birds that are leaving the UK, what the residents are getting up to and which birds will be arriving over the next few weeks.

To increase this awareness, I've run some sessions to demystify one of the most difficult sections in a fieldguide - the bit that contains warblers. We've split warblers into different genera to help with identification.

Female blackcap at Rodley Nature Reserve

Groups have also learned more about wheatears, cuckoos and brood parasitism. This week is the last of the indoor classes until September and both my Monday and Wednesday evening groups will be putting all their learning into practice over the spring and summer months.

Spring has certainly arrived early this year and I was astounded to witness the scene at RSPB Old Moor on Saturday 1st March. All the islands were filled with screeching black-headed gulls and a Mediterranean gull was strutting confidently among them. There were signs of spring everywhere and there was such a lot of warmth in the sun that it felt as though it should have been the beginning of April.

Twite at RSPB Blacktoft

Outdoor classes have all been in Yorkshire over March and have also included RSPB Blacktoft Sands; YWT North Cave Wetlands; Meanwood Valley; YWT Kirkstall Valley Nature Reserve; Roundhay Park and Gorge, Rodley Nature Reserve and YWT Hetchell Woods. The furthest was our trip to Filey, YWT Filey Dams and the east coast. Here it was obvious that winter and spring were still overlapping with snow buntings being seen on the grassland above the cliffs and gannets already nesting at RSPB Bempton Cliffs.

The first of the gannets at RSPB Bempton Cliffs

The final weekend in March was spent at Skipwith Common with fabulous views of woodlark, green woodpecker, redpoll and siskin.

Green woodpecker at Skipwith Common

So where do the sausages come in? My partner and I took a well deserved day off and went on course at Old Sleningford Farm to learn all about how to make sausages. We spent the morning preparing the farm reared meat and adding a variety of flavours then we got the chance to taste the sausage mixture for lunch, in the form of a burger, before putting the minced mixture into the skins. We all took our wares home and we are now going to attempt to make our own sausages.

home made sausage and mash

I really do recommend that you look at the Old Sleningford Farm website as they put a variety of courses on their calendar. They'll even be having a birdwatching course there in October and guess who will be running it? Me of course - the course will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and lunch will be provided. Contact me for details if you'd like to brush up on your birding skills in 2014 or why not join one of my classes over the spring and summer months. Email me at

Happy birding!