The summer of Painted Ladies

Painted Ladies are pretty snazzy butterflies – and this summer I’ve been seeing them everywhere.

I’m not the only one. Summer 2019 has been hailed a Painted Lady Summer – a once-in-a-decade influx of these orange-and-black stunners – meaning most of us will have seen one at some point.

It seems incredible that these dainty-looking beauties should migrate here from southern Europe or even Africa, but that’s exactly what millions of them have done. That’s an awful lot of wing-wafting. This mass influx even made the news headlines.

I was lucky enough to be on holiday close to the sea front in lovely Filey at the end of July, and the flowers in the garden were a magnet for Painted Ladies. The odd one looked travel weary, but most were in pristine condition.

We saw them in ridiculous numbers along the coast all week, making them a holiday wildlife highlight.

Butterflies can be frustrating and reluctant subjects for photos, but I did manage to get a few pics on my mobile – and here they are.

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Busy birds and beautiful bluebells: savouring the best of spring

I was lucky enough to enjoy a rare day off with my wife, Jane, this week, and to get us away from the hectic pace of daily life, we took ourselves off to a lush corner of the Yorkshire Dales, at Bolton Abbey.

It was one of those wonderful days when spring is in full throttle – the smell of wild garlic, bluebells decorating the woodland floor, and birds busily feeding and singing.

We spent most of our time in the woods around the Strid (pictured below) – a narrow passage of the River Wharfe that looks like a gushing stream, but hides depths that could swallow two double-decker buses with room to spare.

Wood Warblers

Some of the birds that live here are ridiculously easy to see, as you’ll see from the photos I managed to get. But one is not so easy. I have only seen a Wood Warbler once before, in this very place, but that was when I was ten or even younger, and I can barely remember it.

Before heading out on our trip, Jane and I both learned the Wood Warbler’s call so we could listen out for it. These smart birds – green on the back, lemon yellow on the breast and pure white below – arrive here in the spring to breed.

Jane heard the call first. We were standing by the river, enjoying close-up views of Nuthatches and Coal Tits that were coming down to feed on a log, and the warbler’s trilling song came drifting over the river. We spent about 40 minutes trying in vain to spot it, but gave up, knowing we would be walking along the opposite bank later in the day.

As luck would have it, when we did reach that spot, it was waymarked by a photographer and a local birder, who’d both seen our bird, and even got some photos of it. The four of us stood listening and staring into the greenery, hoping to see something moving in the trees as the call moved around.

Some time later, some leaves shook in the same direction as the call, and there it was – a stunning Wood Warbler, briefly out in the open. I followed it in my binoculars for as long as I could before it flitted off again. It was a lovely moment, and the second time this year I’ve finally caught up with a bird I hadn’t seen since childhood – the other being a Bearded Tit that was pretty much showing off by the main lake at St Aidan’s RSPB reserve earlier in the year.

Pied Flycatchers

Pied Flycatchers are one of my favourite birds, and seeing them in their breeding plumage is a real treat. We were spoiled by them at Bolton Abbey. The first one appeared, in the same pose as the one I drew a few weeks ago, by the side of the path as we headed downhill from the car park. Easy!

But we enjoyed even better views further along from our Wood Warbler spot, especially thanks to one pair that were out in the open, going to and from their nestbox.

Bolton Abbey (42)Bolton Abbey (41)Bolton Abbey (37)

PiedFlycatcher

Mandarins

Mandarins are exotic little ducks. They can be hard to see in many places, but not here. Three drakes were very active on the river, but one male and female couldn’t be bothered with all that. They sat underneath the bird feeders by the Strid Café and had a nap instead.

Bolton Abbey (49)Bolton Abbey (14)Bolton Abbey (13)

Grey Wagtails

It was the first time this year that I’d seen Grey Wagtails, but I lost count of how many we saw feeding on the Wharfe. One behaviour I hadn’t seen before was these birds leaving the ground to sit briefly on a branch. I’m much more used to seeing them bobbing around on a river bank and then flying a few yards to do more of the same – perhaps dashing out over the water to nab a fly before coming back again.

Bolton Abbey (10)Bolton Abbey (11)

Dippers

Another specialist of upland streams and rivers, we fleetingly saw two Dippers zipping low over the river, before eventually catching up with a pair feeding under a stone bridge. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Dippers, and I like to think they get on really well with Grey Wagtails, as they have so much in common.

Bolton Abbey (30)

Nuthatches

Another of my favourite birds; partly for its striking looks and partly because of its cool party trick – it can climb down trees upside down. The Nuthatches at Bolton Abbey are quite showy and obliging. We spent a while trying to get photos of them, and these were my best efforts.

Bolton Abbey (20)Bolton Abbey (21)Bolton Abbey (22)

Bluebells

I’m not an expert on flowers, but like most people, I do appreciate Bluebells, and the Strid Wood was the epitome of a ‘bluebell wood’. My photos really don’t do it justice to this purple haze.

A Yorkshire spring at its best

It was one of those days where the best of the Yorkshire Dales and the best of spring combined to create an unforgettable experience and a treat for the senses. We finished the day with an ice cream, and, just to top things off, saw a Red Grouse and five Red Kites along the same stretch of the road on the way home.

Me sitting by the river writing my bird sightings in a notebook

Taking a moment to jot down the day’s sightings

Wren standing on the end of a log

We heard and saw lots of Wrens, but this one was the boldest, stepping out on a log to pose briefly for a photo.


A joyful dad and son birding encounter

Birdwatching can be many things: relaxing, absorbing, frustrating, educational… but exhilarating and joyful? Well, yes actually.

There are birding moments that can leave you grinning like a fool, cheering like a champion, or gawping like a fish.

I was fortunate enough to enjoy one such moment when I took a long-overdue day off to go birding. It was also the first day of the school holidays, so I had a wildlife-loving sidekick for the day: my son Daniel.

We faced a dilemma. Would we head for Flamborough on the east coast in the hope of finding our number one bogey bird, the Firecrest? There had been sightings in two different locations there in the previous few days but none reported the day before. Or would we go somewhere a little nearer – maybe to Fairburn Ings and the chance to see a Little Gull, which had been reported during the week?

I gave Daniel the choice, and he plumped for the shorter trip to Fairburn.

Raptor rapture

We had a moment on our journey that made the trip worthwhile, before we’d even started in earnest. Daniel loves birds of prey – the first time he said ‘bird’ was when a Red Kite drifted over his buggy on a visit to Harewood House – and had been talking about how he’d love to see a raptor close up.

He was pleased enough when we spotted a buzzard in a tree, but then we passed so close to one perched in a roadside hedge that he could see every detail on its face. The delight in his voice as he described it set us up for a great day ahead.

A promising start

The omens were still good as we arrived in the village to be greeted by several Sand Martins, my first of the year. We strolled down the lane to Village Bay, where the Little Gull had last been reported, encountering several songbirds as we went – a very vocal Chiffchaff, a Linnet in a classic pose on top of a hedgerow, and a Song Thrush hopping about in a grassy field.

Reaching the shore of the lake, I set up my telescope, lowering it to a Daniel-friendly height so he could get the same decent views of distant birds as I could.

Main Lake at Fairburn

The Main Lake, reflecting the blue sky

Daniel looks through the telescope

Daniel gets to grips with the scope

One by one, we spotted Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Coots and Moorhens, and a generous smattering of Gadwall – a very smart and under-rated duck – then Great Crested Grebes, Pochards, and my first Little Egret of the year on the far side of the lake.

On wooden posts in the middle of the water stood two Cormorants – one juvenile and one adult (like Cormorant versions of me and Daniel) and a trio of Black-headed Gulls, which I studied closely in case one turned out to be our Little Gull.

A little bit of magic

I expected that if we were lucky enough to see it, the Little Gull would be a fleeting glimpse of a juvenile some distance away.

When we did clap eyes on it, though, it surpassed all my hopes.

A small white gull caught my eye as it flew over the heads of some Pochards over to our left. As it zipped about, I got a clear view through my binoculars of the gull’s unmistakable distinguishing feature, which I’d seen in photos – the wings, although pale on top, were distinctly dark underneath.

“I’ve got it!” I shouted. I was able to point it out to Daniel. “See it, there? Flying over the Little Egret now…”

“I can see it!” he said.

There were two more special moments to come for me.

The first was when Daniel managed to pick up the Little Gull with my scope and follow it around as it whizzed high and then low over the lake. As a toddler, he had an operation on one of his eyes, and we weren’t sure he’d ever have ‘binocular vision’, and now here he was, sharing my hobby and this magical moment, just as able to watch this uncommon bird as I was.

In fact it was Daniel who got the best view first, and told me he could see the gull’s black head. This wasn’t a juvenile, or an adult bird still in its less striking winter plumage. This was a smart adult in full breeding plumage.

“You little beauty!” I gasped as a took over the scope for a few minutes, following the Little Gull as Daniel had done. What a smashing little bird. What an exhilarating and joyful few minutes. Not just a ‘lifer’ (the name for a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life) but a cracking and generous view of a bird at its best, which I could share with my boy.

Moments like these make time stand still, and banish all other thoughts. Whatever else is going on in life, or in our heads, an encounter like this can put a smile on our faces whenever we pause to recall it.

Me and Daniel, after seeing the Little Gull

Two happy boys after seeing the Little Gull

Making memories

The day would bring other great moments – listening to Bitterns ‘booming’ (their call sounds like the noise you can make by blowing into a bottle); being so close to a singing Robin that Daniel could almost touch it with his nose; watching an exotic Spoonbill; and a great look at a dazzling Kingfisher – but it’s that shared moment with a Little Gull that will stay in our memories for many years to come.

Robin

Our friendly Robin

Pair of Gadwall and a Coot

A smart pair of Gadwall and a photobombing Coot

 View from Lin Dike hide

The view from Lin Dike hide

Sand Martins using nest holes

Sand Martins take advantage of these nest holes

View from Pickup Hide

The view from Pickup Hide


The wacky bird race 3: revenge of the Nuthatch

My third York bird race would feature a lifetime first, glorious close-up viewings, a dramatic natural spectacle, and, of course, the one that got away.

The time: 6.30am. The day: Sunday. The location: my street.

Four intrepid birders – me, Rich, Emanuela and new recruit Paul, standing in for the injured Captain Jono – have gathered to see or hear as many different species as possible in one day in the York area, competing with other local teams.

It’s well before dawn, but calling Blackbirds and Robins give us a count of two before we’ve even got in Rich’s Birdmobile.

Hits and miss

A successful start to the day brought us an almost ridiculous number of calling Tawny Owls, joined by a welcome bonus of a Little Owl, and the potentially tricky duo of Grey and Red Legged Partridges. Cheered on by a nearby Snipe, and still roaming in the dark, we headed to Allerthorpe Common, a much-visited site in the past week because of the presence of a rare Coues’ Arctic Redpoll.

With a Barn Owl giving us generous views as it hunted on the common, and a Buzzard calling from above us, the omens seemed good. The list began to grow, with a double bill of Marsh and Willow Tit, followed by four Crossbills calling as they flew over. And then there were the Redpolls – a chance to scour the flock of both Lesser and Mealy for our Arctic visitor. But lovely though those many Redpolls were, their star turn wasn’t going to come out to dazzle us. With time ticking on, we had to accept that, even so early in the day, this would be one that got away.

Happy valley

The next part of our strategy involved looping round the Lower Derwent Valley, taking in East Cottingwith, Bubwith, North Duffield and Bank Island. There were two contrasting highlights for me.

Kingfisher

Emanuela and Rich had seen a fly-by Kingfisher earlier on, but Paul and I had missed it while fruitlessly trying to unearth a Jack Snipe. The rules state that at least three of the team must see or hear the bird for it to count. While we were at Bubwith, scanning for an almost-mythical American Wigeon that had been seen there recently, Rich called out “Kingfisher”, and there it was, on a distant perch, beautifully framed in the lens of his telescope. It obligingly sat completely still for us all to admire – a beautiful bird, and a rare opportunity to pause and appreciate it in all its glory.

Marsh Harrier

The chances of seeing a Marsh Harrier near home when I started birding were laughably small; non-existent, probably. But for my second bird race running, I was able to watch one in action at North Duffield. This cracking bird, a juvenile, I think, soared majestically into view from the hide and sent hundreds of Lapwings, ducks and gulls flapping all over the sky in a panicked cloud (that’s what is happening in the two photos below – not that you can tell!). And there was further peril lurking for these hapless birds, with a Peregrine loitering on a fence post not far away.

Bird bonanza

We left the valley to try and add more water birds to our list at Castle Howard Lake, and it came up trumps, sporting Goldeneye, Goosander, Mandarin, Grey Heron, Cormorant and others. But there was another attraction for us on the lake – a Red Necked Grebe. Normally your best chance of seeing one is on the coast, so the discovery of one here in the York recording area was a real coup for local birders. Would the lake come up with a lifer for me for the third year running, following in the claw prints of Scaup in 2017 and Cetti’s Warbler in 2018?

Yes, it would. Before race week, I wouldn’t have even considered seeing a Red Necked Grebe on the big day, yet there it was, drifting along then diving as grebes do.

Race against time

With the afternoon passing with alarming speed, we had difficult decisions to make about where we could fit into our remaining daylight. We opted for a cross-country route (finally spotting Yellowhammer) to Strensall Common, where we hoped to find Stonechat, Green Woodpecker, and the day’s most elusive common species for us, the Nuthatch. We found none of them.

Still needing some water birds, we headed to Heslington East, aiming for Pochard, Water Rail and maybe a Great Crested Grebe. We had mixed fortunes. The grebes weren’t forthcoming. The Water Rail stubbornly refused to call from its usual reedbed and then, to add to our frustration, I managed to get a great view of it as it literally sprinted away from me before anyone else could clap eyes on it. It never came out of its hiding place, and maintained a resolute silence. One out of four doesn’t count on a bird race, and we had to abandon it. With sunset calling, we managed our Pochard – bird number 89 – and set off into the dusk for one last throw of the dice at Wheldrake Ings.

Drama at dusk

The time: approaching 5pm. The location: Wheldrake Ings foot bridge.

There we were, the four of us, back in the darkness, listening and hoping. We bumped into the clear winners, who’d got more than 100 species, and they told us there had been 1,000 Golden Plovers there earlier in the day. Maybe we’d hear one to claim our 90th species. Then we heard that our rivals for second place had retired top the pub on 89.

“It was this dark when we got that Woodcock here last year,” I said. And barely had the words left my mouth than the most timely bird of the day bombed straight over our heads – a long straight bill, a barrel-like tummy, and a rapid wingbeat… Could our final bird of the day have been a more apt species than the one our team was named after?

And so Never Mind The Woodcocks finished on 90, taking second spot and having had a thoroughly enjoyable day chasing round the brilliant birding spots surrounding York – a combination of frenzied pursuit and sublime moments of birding perfection.

 

 

 


On a cold and frosty morning

I’m using some days off from work to recharge my brain by day and perform in a panto by night.

I’ve been taking this week off for years now, and have learned how best to spend my time. The week typically involves:

  • Preparing myself for panto
  • Catching up on some telly that nobody else would be interested in watching (today I watched a programme about my favourite band, The Kinks – their song Dead End Street is the inspiration for this blog title)
  • Doing my Christmas shopping
  • Having lunch out with my wife
  • Doing some drawing and maybe writing
  • Getting out to enjoy nature

Yesterday was about the last two things on my list. Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, has become my favourite place to go at this time of year. In frost and morning sunlight, it is truly beautiful, and walking round it on my own, watching and listening and breathing the cold, fresh air feels restorative. It’s an undemanding place to go – no long drive, no need to lug my telescope around, no pressure to search for an elusive rarity. Just a wild place to explore and appreciate.

The benefit of my outing could be perfectly summarised by a five-minute spell shortly after my walk had begun.

With a few walkers arriving at the same time as me, I stepped off the main path to allow them to pass and to scan the trees for birds.

A little brown Wren popped up on the bank of a ditch, its perky tail pointing to the sky as it hopped from an exposed tree root into the cover of a bush.

Next my attention was caught by the black, white and pink of a Long-tailed Tit, one of several in a classic winter flock, which under further inspection included Great Tits, Blue Tits and Chaffinches.

And something a little different – an unexpected Chiffchaff, skulking about in the copse. While I was trying to get a better look at it, a burst of colour flashed before my eyes – the bright red, black and white plumage of a bold Great Spotted Woodpecker. I had some rare quiet time in the afternoon to do this drawing of it.

Another unmistakable bird joined the gang – a Treecreeper, only yards from the woodpecker, carried out its classic ritual of spiralling up one tree before zipping over to another and doing it all again.

With the frosty and ice melting rapidly, and large blobs of water plopping down from the treetops, I savoured the chance to leave the main boardwalk and explore the paths to the edges of the reserve, pausing to take photos with my phone and be mindful of everything around me.

The light shining on the water and frost meant that there were photo opportunities at every turn.

Today it’s been non-stop heavy rain, so I’ve had a sleep, watched my Kinks programme and written this, in the knowledge that I’ve managed my time pretty well this week and am finally able to spend time on self-care after a frantic couple of months.


Six reasons to love gulls

Gulls are not exactly everyone’s favourite birds. They’re often fairly plain and overlooked, and some of the more piratical ones have taken to violently stealing people’s chips and ice cream.

I must admit there have been days when I’ve cursed them myself, when I’ve spent fruitless hours standing in the freezing cold, scanning thousands of very similar-looking gulls, hopelessly trying to find one of the rarer species.

But there are plenty of reasons to love gulls, and here are six of them.

They readily pose for photos

This cannot be said of most birds I try to take photos of, which often end up being nothing more than an indistinct blur or a distant blob. Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls are particularly amenable to posing for pictures. Look at these poseurs.

Herring Gull perched on amusements sign.

This Herring Gull fancies a flutter in the arcade at Filey.

Black-headed Gull, Windermere

This handsome Black-headed Gull in its breeding plumage was happy to pose on a post on the shore of Windermere.

They’re actually quite beautiful after all

Look at these Kittiwakes – such immaculate little gulls, and they would never pinch your chips.

Kittiwakes on Inner Farne

A pair of Kittiwakes on Inner Farne.

The cry of a gull reminds me of the sea

I love being by the sea, and the call of gulls – usually Herring Gulls (yes, they’re the robbing ones, but there are some nice ones, honest) – is immediately evocative of trips to the seaside, digging on the beach and paddling in the sea. And the distinctive, repetitive call of Kittiwakes immediately takes me back to the precariously balanced colonies I’ve seen at Bempton, Filey and Seahouses.

Herring Gull in flight.

A Herring Gull flies overhead, possibly on the look-out for an opportunist snack.

They’re more varied than you might think

Yes, most gulls are some variation of white, grey and black, but the imposing Great Black-backed Gull is a very different beast to the dainty Little Gull, which remains a bogey bird for me. Then there’s the endless variety of plumages, depending on the time of year and age of the bird. Telling the difference is potentially a rewarding challenge – not one I’ve managed to succeed at myself yet.

Great Black-backed Gull, Seahouses.

Great Black-backed Gulls are huge beasts.

They have different characters

Common Gulls seem pretty shy birds that are happy to blend in and not make a fuss, whereas Herring Gulls strut around like they own everywhere and everything.

Herring Gull perched on a sign.

“None shall pass,” says Sentinel Herring Gull.

You can find them everywhere

You don’t have to be by the sea to see gulls. There are large colonies of Black-headed Gulls at inland wetlands, sometimes along with Mediterranean Gulls, and in the winter you can find massive numbers of gulls on rubbish tips or hanging about in fields.

Black-headed Gull, winter plumage.

A Black-headed Gull in its winter plumage takes a bracing dip at Fairburn Ings, Yorkshire.


A spellbinding slither into spring

Sometimes nature is so breathtakingly brilliant that all you can do is gawp in wonder and grin like a fool.

That’s what I did on Saturday afternoon, anyway, thanks to a very special and unexpected discovery.

I was at Skipwith Common, a lowland heath near York, having dropped off my nine-year-old son at a party nearby. The common is one of my favourite places to escape, explore and appreciate nature, whatever the time of year, but on this particular April afternoon, the sun was out after another cold, wet week, and under the bright blue sky and warm sunshine, spring’s trademarks were all around.

The promise of some quality time with nature began with the chortling call of a green woodpecker as soon as I opened the car door, followed soon after by the first of many chiffchaffs.

Reflections in water at Skipwith Common

Mellow yellows

I’d hoped I might hear a cuckoo, or perhaps see a tree pipit, but perhaps it was a bit too early in the spring. It was, though, just the right time for my first brimstone of the year. Along with orange tips, they’re my favourite butterflies, and the glorious yellow of the one that came tumbling past me was a perfect match for the patch of daffodils I’d just passed, and the yellow-specked gorse bushes lining the ditches and paths.

Cyclists and dog walkers were out in force, enjoying this welcome burst of sunny weather, but I was craving a bit of peace, so decided to explore one of the smaller paths. It turned out to be a shortcut to a familiar part of the common, the Bomb Bay Loop, part of the former airfield, and a place I’ve explored several times with my family to seek out some snakes, but without success.

Yay, a jay

As I set off round the loop, I heard my first drumming great spotted woodpecker of the year, then something in the distance caught my eye. I nearly dismissed it as a woodpigeon but wait, was that a white rump I could make out? It was indeed, belonging to a very handsome jay, which hung about long enough for me to enjoy its striking pinky plumage with dazzling blue on its wings.

But my wildlife highlight of the year so far was just around the corner.

Lake and trees at Skipwith Common

Sssurprise!

“I’ve still never seen a snake in the wild,” I was thinking to myself. “When I get home, I’ll put a date on the calendar for a family trip to Allerthorpe Common (a local adder hotspot).”

No sooner had that thought ended, than I found myself looking into the reptilian eye of a coiled snake, sunning itself on the edge of a gap in a small brick wall.

Skipwith Common (9)

“No way!” I exclaimed out loud, as I stood transfixed, my eyes close to popping out. I was close enough to crouch down quietly and take a photo on my mobile. What a stunning creature – and it had company. A second snake, less confident about openly sunbathing, skulked behind it, further back in the crevice, and then slipped away.

The bolder snake seemed to sense my presence, so turned away from me, its dark tail end draping briefly over the wall before disappearing into the dark, as if it were a long, black tongue being sucked back into an unseen mouth.

Still amazed and grinning away to myself, and realising that time was swiftly passing, I hastily returned to my car, thinking about my discovery all the way. They hadn’t seemed like large snakes – maybe they were juveniles? And I expected they’d be adders, but I wasn’t completely sure.

Lightning strikes twice

As soon as I picked up my son from the party, I couldn’t resist showing him the photo, and naturally he wanted to go and look for the snakes too – he’s been brought up on Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 and Deadly Pole to Pole, as well as Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature, after all. His friends gathered round to look at the picture, and before long a small party of snake-hunters was heading back to Skipwith – three boys, me and one of the boys’ mums.

I warned them all repeatedly that the snakes had probably gone, and they might be very disappointed, but incredibly my two new friends were still there. We all had a great view, and went home thoroughly satisfied with our efforts.

I looked at photos of both adders and grass snakes when I got home, and identified my Skipwith beasties as grass snakes, with confirmation from more knowledgeable people on Twitter.

Seeing a snake in the wild was on my wildlife bucket list, and, when I had no expectation of finding one, up popped two, proving once again that nature can be profoundly exciting, moving, wonderful, joyful, and full of surprises.

Gorse and birches at Skipwith Common