Birding can be a maddening hobby, but it can also bring sublime moments that become permanently etched in your memory. I unexpectedly had one of those moments this evening.
It had been a pretty standard day of working from home. Before switching off my laptop, I had a quick look at Twitter, and found that there were some photos of a Hoopoe. On closer inspection, I learned that it was within a 25-minute drive of home, in Collingham, near Wetherby.
This wasn’t the first report of a local Hoopoe I’d seen this week. On Saturday, my friend Adam had to brake to avoid running one over, when it landed in the road in front of him. On the same day, someone else saw one on a grass verge near a carpet store on a business park near York, and I goggled at her photo in envious disbelief.
More about Hoopoes
A Hoopoe is a bird worth seeing. To me, all birds are worth seeing, but Hoopoes are so striking, so distinctive, so exotic-looking that even a non-birder would stop and stare. They’re what I would call a bucket-list bird – an outrageously flamboyant species I have always hoped I would see at least once in my life.
There is so much to appreciate in one bird. It has a groovy curved bill and a punky orange, white and black crest, which it sometimes shows off in full with a dashing flick. Its pinky-orange head, chest, belly and shoulders are offset by a snazzy pattern of black and white stripes on its rounded wings.
Hoopoes are not resident British birds. They’re widespread in Europe, Africa and Asia, but some turn up here in spring or autumn on migration, often in places where you wouldn’t expect to find a rare bird – like the middle of the road, for example, or near a carpet shop.
Not bad for a garden bird
So there I was, staring at Twitter, and beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, I could get to Collingham in time to see it. It was 5pm. We hadn’t had our tea. My son Daniel – my birding sidekick – had Scouts (via Zoom, of course) at 7.30pm. We could just about manage it.
In the space of five minutes, Daniel had changed out of his school uniform, we’d grabbed our binoculars, and my quick-thinking wife, Jane, had masterminded the logistics of tea and Scouts, so off we went. With tips from a fellow birder, we had a rough idea of where we were going, and pulled up in an ordinary residential street. Within moments, a man just ahead of us pointed to a driveway over the road and aimed his camera at it. We half-ran, half-tiptoed, and were rewarded with a ten-second view of this glorious bird. My photo below, hastily snapped on maximum zoom on my mobile, really doesn’t do it justice.
Startled by a passing car, the Hoopoe flew off over the roof of the house and was lost from view. That one view would have been enough, but other people who’d already seen it said it would return somewhere along the street before long.
And they were right. It dropped onto a garage roof for a few seconds – just long enough to admire its unmistakable shape – then it was off again. But the best was yet to come.
With the light starting to fade, the Hoopoe was back, flying across the road, followed carefully by a gaggle of stealthy birders, who in turn were watched by intrigued residents.
And, befitting of such an absurdly attractive creature, it put on a dazzling star turn for the next 15 minutes or so, stepping out onto the pavement for all to see, and sifting through roadside moss for its supper. It even demonstrated its crest flick as it pottered back and forth just a few yards from where I had parked. What a bird.
It was almost dark when our Hoopoe eventually took off down the street at around 6.40pm, giving us just enough time to get back home, guzzle our tea, and get Daniel onto Zoom for Scouts.
It had been a whirlwind couple of hours, from seeing the photos on Twitter to being back home again, and really captured birding at its best. When I’ve written about the benefits of birding for mental health, I’ve described it as my kind of mindfulness – a chance to become completely absorbed in the moment. I found myself with a big grin on my face as I savoured the view across the road through my binoculars at this other-worldly bird. That is the joy and the thrill that keeps me coming back for more, and an experience that will stay in my memory for years to come. You might need to remind me of that next time I’m complaining about spending hours failing to find an elusive, drab warbler in a bush somewhere.
Lockdown has not been kind to my brain. Inescapable, constant pressure and stress built up, allowing my anxiety to stealthily creep up and open the door for depression.
I was on edge all the time – stressed out and agitated by anything and everything; feeling battered and overwhelmed; absent-minded and forgetful.
I’ve had to take time off work, increase the dose of my medication, and have counselling. All of these have helped, but if you’re a regular Dippyman reader, you’ll know that walking in nature is one of the things I try to do more of when I need to recharge and recuperate.
My doctor and counsellor have encouraged me to treat my time out enjoying wildlife as if it’s on prescription. It’s an essential part of my ‘tool kit’ for managing my mental health.
Distancing and dodging
Thinking back to when the lockdown restrictions were tighter, I can remember losing heart with my daily walks, and on hindsight that was a clear signal that I was on a downward spiral.
At first, I was glad to get out of the house for a change of scenery, but I grew weary of the same routes, day after day. There were some highlights – watching migrant birds returning for the summer, for example – but I started to find the walks stressful. Having to dodge people for social distancing meant I was permanently on edge. The very thing that should be helping me was having the opposite effect.
My time off work coincided with some of the restrictions lifting, meaning I could visit different places, enjoy different vistas, and see different wildlife. Most of the time I’ve stayed fairly close to home, and I’ve been lucky that some pretty special birds have turned up within a half-hour drive – a Red-footed Falcon and Rose Coloured Starling, for example.
Summer in seabird city
It’s also been peak time for activity at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire’s seabird city, which I’ve been to twice in the past month. The first time was before the visitor centre and toilets were open, and it was a blustery day. I was fortunate to time my visit between two downpours, and hardly saw another person. It was a different story the second time – it was sunny, the facilities had reopened, and the reserve was the busiest I’ve ever seen it.
I could easily have been disheartened or anxious about trying to avoid the crows, but – and perhaps this is a sign I’m making progress – I took a break, had something to eat, and started again. I had my camera with me, and managed to get some decent shots of Puffins.
I then set off on a clifftop walk towards Speeton, hoping to see a Hen Harrier that had been seen hunting in the fields on this stretch of the coast.
I didn’t manage to see it, but I found other things to enjoy – not least the views.
Walking further than I’d ever intended, I turned back towards Bempton. Two birds in particular put a smile on my face:
- A Sandwich Tern flew past – my first of the year, and bird number 150 for my year list.
- I came face to face with a Peregrine perched on a post.
It was easily the best view I’ve ever had of one of these stunning raptors. It kindly stayed on the post while I took some pictures, then it was gone, dashing along the cliff face in search of prey.
It was one of those moments when nature can stop you in your tracks and brighten your spirits. My walk along the coast perfectly encapsulated how nature helps my mental health:
- a sense of adventure, discovery and exploration
- exercise and fresh air
- a kind of mindfulness – the sights, sounds and smells help me get absorbed in the present moment, rather than dwelling and ruminating on less helpful things.
I’ll leave you with a few more photos of Bempton’s spectacular seabirds.
My fourth Michael Clegg Memorial Bird Race around the birding hotspots of the York area was another epic dawn-til-dusk adventure for our team, Never Mind The Woodcocks, as we took on the challenge of seeing or hearing as many bird species as possible in one day.
It was to be another day of drama, delight and disappointment, which proved once again that when it comes to birds, you just never know what’s going to happen…
A new hope
Trying a variety of habitats is key to finding a variety – and therefore the highest possible number – of birds, and we decided to kick things off by seeing in the breaking dawn at Skipwith Common, for a mix of woodland and heathland species. Gradually notching up a reasonable tally, including a Brambling calling as it flew overhead, and a distant Jay, and accompanied by the constant calling and hooting of Tawny Owls, we left Skipwith knowing that we still had some potentially tricky woodland birds, such as Marsh Tit and Nuthatch, left to find. But, perhaps promisingly, we did get our team mascot, the Woodcock, zipping right over our heads as we watched the sun rising over the pond.
Scaup in scope
We carried on into the winter wildfowl wonderland that is the Lower Derwent Valley, and quickly found two male Scaup – a duck I’d only seen once before, on our 2017 bird race – at Aughton, but the two Bewick’s Swans I was itching to see were nowhere to be seen. To rub salt into our wounds, a birder we met there said he’d seen one of them going in the opposite direction earlier on. We carried on regardless, visiting Ellerton, East Cottingwith and Melbourne over on the east side of the valley, building a steady but unspectacular list.
For our 2017 and 2018 races, we started our day on the cycle track at Bishopthorpe to successfully listen out for the increasingly scarce Grey Partridge. Last year, we heard them, along with Red-legged Partridges, in Thornton early in the morning.
This year, we had a new site, Menthorpe Lane, near North Duffield, where Jono and Rich had both encountered partridges and other farmland birds only a couple of days earlier. Try as we might, after a flurry of Corn Buntings and Yellowhammers, we just couldn’t find any partridges there on the big day.
Later in the day, another team who’d seen them just moments before we met them, told us where to find some, but there were no Greys to be seen, and only Jono and Rich managed to clap eyes on two Red-legs fleeing the scene. Rules state that at least three of the four team members have to see or hear every bird, so we couldn’t count them unless Emanuela or I could get one. Fortunately, we drove past some Red-legs on our way to another site, so we managed to add them to our list – but we never did catch up with the Greys. Not until Jono heard them in the usual Bishopthorpe spot on his dog walk the following morning, by which time it was too late and the partridges were having a good old chuckle at our expense.
I was the team’s driver this year, and managed to make my mark by getting the car stuck in a muddy lane while we tried fruitlessly to find a Jack Snipe in marshes near Melbourne. Even with the combined might of Jono, Rich and kind members of the Young Upstarts team, who also found a Kingfisher for us while we were there, the car wouldn’t move an inch, backwards or forwards. Not until I realised after a few minutes that the handbrake was still on, that is. This, my friends, is a classic way of making yourself look a blithering idiot in no time at all.
New site comes up trumps
Marsh Tit and Nuthatch were still proving elusive as we moved into the afternoon, but Captain Jono had a new trick up his sleeve – a small wood on the edge of Escrick. We can’t have been there more than five minutes in total, but in that time a calling Marsh Tit popped up right by the path, and Jono’s beady birding eye spotted a Nuthatch high in an old oak tree. Job done!
One catchphrase came to be our team motto for the day – spank it! This was Jono’s rallying cry for me to get us swiftly on to the next site and the next bird with all speed, and I did spend a lot of the afternoon spanking it, so to speak, as we entered the final push.
My annual lifer
We’d missed the Bewick’s Swans earlier in the day, and scoured a flock of swans from North Duffield without any joy. They were one of three species Jono had seen on a reccy just the day before that would have been lifetime firsts for me, the other two being Iceland and Caspian Gulls. Would this be my first bird race without seeing a lifer?
As it turns out, no. Having left North Duffield and gone a few miles towards our next destination, Jono saw a message that the swans had been found, back at Bubwith Ings, the next stop along the valley from North Duffield. Torn between adding more birds to our list and going back for the swans, the team generously decided that, as they’d be a lifer for me, we would spank it back to Bubwith.
We pulled up in the car, got out, and the first two swans there in front of us were the Bewick’s – another bird race lifer! Similar in appearance to the larger and more plentiful Whooper Swans, the Bewick’s seemed daintier and more graceful as they glided past. Lovely birds, and a rare treat for the area’s birders. Picking up some Dunlins, we proceeded to spank it once more.
The trouble with gulls (and how to get into it)*
Gulls have proved to be our nemesis on previous bird races. It’s not that there aren’t many of them – there are loads – but finding the rarer species in amongst the huge numbers of mainly Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls is a challenge to say the least. The previous day, there had been both an Iceland Gull and a Caspian Gull joining those birds in a large flock near Riccall. Twice we tried to find them and twice we failed, although we did get a bonus Peregrine pursuing the gulls, and a lavish helping of Pied Wagtails, which, along with Meadow Pipits, we didn’t see anywhere else.
There was to be a third instalment.
Not long after we’d returned for the Bewick’s Swans, we had a message that the Young Upstarts had re-found the Iceland Gull in the same gull flock we’d been looking at earlier. As it would be a lifer for both me and Emanuela, we spanked it back to Riccall and joined the Upstarts. The birds had scattered just five minutes before we got there, and were gradually returning, but the Iceland was either hiding or had changed its mind about coming back. It was another year of gull-based frustration.
Owls of derision
And it wasn’t just the gulls and partridges that would lead us a merry dance. We’d always found Barn Owl and Little Owl on previous races, the Upstarts had found a Long-eared Owl at Wheldrake Ings early that morning, and Rich had seen Short-eared Owls down Menthorpe Lane earlier in the week, but this year would see a new phenomenon – the foliage owl. Three times in the late afternoon, we were bamboozled by various things that looked just like owls but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Two far-off reed heads combined to perfectly resemble the face of a Long-eared Owl when we were at Wheldrake. A tree stump did a cunning impersonation of a perching Little Owl. Some pale foliage masqueraded as a Barn Owl. But despite a final throw of the dice down a dark country lane, where another team had seen both Barn Owl and Little Owl within the last half hour, we were left stumped.
The ones that got away
There were the gulls, the owls, the Grey Partridges, but other birds seemed to have it in for us on bird race day – birds we’d always been able to rely on in the past. No Sparrowhawk, no Stonechat, no grebes, no Goosander… We were left wondering what might have been if we’d tried other sites, as we ended the day on a very respectable 88, well behind the record-breaking Young Upstarts with an astonishing 108, and unable to maintain our top-two spot of previous years.
The teams gathered in the pub in good spirits to trade stories of triumphs and frustrations after another day of friendly competitiveness, savouring the wildlife spectacles we’d enjoyed amidst the dashing and spanking of the race in this wonderful part of the world.
This year’s race has been raising money for Jean Thorpe’s amazing work in rehabilitating and releasing raptors that have been persecuted and injured. As I write this, the fundraising is well over double its original target. Want to help triple it? There’s still time to donate here.
*I’m writing this on Elvis Presley’s birthday, so this heading’s one for Elvis fans – it’s a pun on one of his final movies, The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get Into It).
It’s 10.25pm. It’s dusk and the light is fading. Four hopeful faces gaze out of the cottage window for the seventh night in a row – the last night of their holiday, with the rain pouring down as it has with barely a pause for two days. And suddenly, wonderfully, there it is. An elusive pine marten emerges from the forest, trots along the wall, turns briefly in our direction, then ambles along the rest of the wall and disappears from view. One of countless ‘wow’ moments of a week of wild marvels in the West Highlands, but probably the biggest wow of them all.
I’ve often written on this blog about how enjoying wildlife can benefit our well-being, but after a week in the Highlands I think I would add that marvelling at wild and spectacular places is good for us too.
In this post, here are some photographic highlights of our week among the mountains and lochs of this breathtakingly beautiful part of the world.
While stopping off to admire the view at Loch Sunart, near Strontian, this butterfly seemed quite willing to pose for photos. I recognised it as a kind of fritillary, purely from seeing them in books. This one turned out to be – we think – a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.
On the Black Rock on Loch Linnhe, near Fort William, Atlantic Grey Seals mingle with Common Seals. Here’s a photo of a grey (left) and common together. Their facial expressions suggest they’re doing a classic ‘staring into the middle-distance’ modelling pose.
As we finished a short stroll by Loch Leven in Ballachulish one damp evening, Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins whooshed around us, feasting on the many midges that had come out, quite probably hoping to feast on us! In this photo, my son Daniel is trying to snap a photo of the birds as they whiz past.
“There’s a Red Deer!” came the call from the top of a high sand dune at the back of Camusdarach Beach. I quickly realised that sprinting up a tower of soft sand is beyond my physical capabilities at the moment, but I made it up eventually, with much puffing and panting, and joined a small group of fellow beach-visitors to watch the deer feeding alongside a footpath on the other side of the dune.
At Inchree, Red Squirrels are not hard to see, but taking a photo of one in a shady patch of forest in a torrential downpour is something else altogether. This is the best I could manage.
The birdlife is brilliant in the West Highlands. I didn’t manage to find a White-tailed Eagle while we were there, but we did well for Golden Eagles, which were a joy to see. Other birding highlights including a pair of Black Guillemots flying by as we waiting to board a cruise on Loch Linnhe, a Raven in Glen Nevis, a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers on our travels, Common Gulls in their summer plumage (a rare sight back home – the one pictured above had some strange facial markings) and Hooded Crows, the Highland equivalent of Carrion Crows. We also enjoyed watching a Rock Pipit feeding by the pier in Fort William – see below.
Lochs, mountains, waterfalls and beaches
Wherever you look in the West Highlands, the scenery is jaw-dropping. We stayed in Ballachulish, near Glencoe, just to the south of Fort William. The whole area is stunning. Here are just some of the scenic highlights.
Aonach Mor and Ben Nevis
These were our views from halfway up Aonach Mor, Scotland’s eighth-highest mountain, where we took the cable car. In the first photo, you can see the snowy north face of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, peeking out on the right. You can also see how changeable the weather was…
I took this assortment of pictures in and around Ballachulish, mainly on the shores of Loch Leven, a sea loch that joins Loch Linnhe on the other side of the bridge. You can also see some of the mountains of Glencoe, along with the forest on the Brecklet path, and the River Laroch, which flows through the village and down to Loch Leven.
Castle Tioram is a ruined castle on a tidal island in Loch Moidart, and at the mouth of the River Shiel. It’s one of those absurdly beautiful places that demands photos from every angle.
The Silver Sands of Morar and Camusdarach Beach
See these beaches? Yep, they’re in Scotland. Gorgeous, eh? It does help when the sun comes out.
Steall Falls and the Nevis Gorge
This was the first of two walks that felt like an adventure. Beginning at the end of a long road, with a warning of possible death due to steep drops, a footpath takes you through woodland, alongside a dramatic gorge, along the river side and into a meadow, with Steall Falls ahead of you. It was here that we enjoyed our best views of Golden Eagles, as two circled the peaks, and where we encountered a lone Raven.
The Lost Valley, Glencoe
Between the Three Sisters of Glencoe, you can climb up a steep valley, to discover what’s known as the Lost Valley – hidden from the rest of Glencoe by a fall of huge rocks. The history and geography of this glen are fascinating. You can find out more about them from people with a lot more expertise than me. What I can tell you is that it’s a pretty dramatic walk, which involves clambering over boulders, encountering waterfall after waterfall – especially in the sort of inclement weather we went out in. Slippery rocks and steep drops introduce an element of peril that tested my nerves but gave us probably our most memorable family outing of the week.
From Fort William, we enjoyed a cruise on Loch Linnhe, one of the largest sea lochs on Scotland’s west coast. The weather was good for our trip, and we had great views of Ben Nevis from out on the water.
I’ve really enjoyed putting together this blog post, because it’s helped me to re-live a week of epic wowing. Once you’ve seen a place this mesmerising, you can’t help but dream of going back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They’re actually quite beautiful after all
Look at these Kittiwakes – such immaculate little gulls, and they would never pinch your chips.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My second York Bird Race would see our team – Never Mind The Woodcocks – reuniting for a blockbuster sequel bursting with birds, and with an unlikely ending. Here are some of my highlights.
Up with the partridge – ahaaaaaa!
Having hatched our plans in the pub the night before, we were (almost) raring to go at 6.45am on race day. Our first stop, as last year, was to catch up with Jono’s faithful grey partridges calling in fields by the cycle track, but a distant teal pipped them to the post as our first bird of the day. As we were starting to think the partridges had abandoned us there in the cold and darkness, two of them croaked out – job done, and off down the A64 to Castle Howard.
Castle Howard Lake brought me my first-ever scaup on my last bird race, and there was to be another first this time. Having found most of the birds we were expecting as dawn broke – except for the usually dependable marsh tit – we started walking back to the car, when Jono recognised a surprising call coming from the rushes on the lake shore.
It was a Cetti’s warbler, a bird that’s been spreading north, but still not one we’d ever expected to find at this location. Although speed is of the essence in a bird race, and although hearing a bird counts as well as seeing one, once Jono knew I’d never seen one, we had to go looking for the elusive warbler – and as we got nearer, a small bird flew from left to right. We saw where it landed, and managed to clap eyes on our suspect just before it disappeared. A brilliant bird – not just for our bird race list but for life list.
Until last November, I had never seen a hawfinch. In fact, these chunky orange finches were one of my top two bogey birds. My first came at this same place – the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, which has been a hotbed of hawfinch action since last autumn’s invasion by this normally scare species.
This time, one small patch in front of the visitors’ centre was heaving with hawfinches. Jono counted about 70 of them, mingling with greenfinches, chaffinches and redwings. It seemed ludicrously easy when it had taken me almost all my birding life to see even one. We struck lucky with a great spotted woodpecker, jay, goldcrest and mistle thrush before we left the Castle Howard area and set off back to York.
Heslington East, a wetland on the newer part of the York University campus, was our next stop. Just before finding a great crested grebe – a bird we just could not find last year – I made another notable contribution, but it was a moment of unintentional comedy rather than any birding wizardry.
Catching my foot on something, I plunged face first into a bog, leaving a squelchy imprint in the ground, like a mud angel, and coating my coat, legs, binoculars and telescope in a generous helping of oozy mud. My foolishly-chosen light-coloured trousers would give away my mucky escapades to everyone we met for the rest of the day.
A quick visit to Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, brought us our overdue marsh tit, but no joy from Jono’s ‘magic woodcock bush’.
Moving on, we failed for the second year in a row to spot any white-winged gulls (the rarer Iceland and glaucous gulls) among the flocks at Rufforth, but added some very welcome green sandpipers to our list.
Next we called in to see my friend Adam, who’d had bramblings and a blackcap in his garden in the days before the race. The blackcap must have heard we were coming, and had gone into hiding, but the bramblings turned up on cue – a valuable bird for us, as it proved hard to find in the area on this year’s race. Adam was perhaps our lucky mascot for the day – we’d bump into him in several other places as we went on to tour the Lower Derwent Valley.
Birds flooding in?
When it comes to birding around York, the Lower Derwent Valley is probably the jewel in our ornithological crown. Although I’d been to Bank Island, Wheldrake Ings, North Duffield and other sites in the valley many times, the bird race was the first time I’d really seen how all these places fit together in one big birding paradise. The view was somewhat different on this occasion, with flooding blurring the boundaries between the different sites.
As the afternoon drew on, the bird list seemed to be growing at such a slow pace that we suspected we’d struggle to get near our previous total of 95. Every site brought at least one new bird, but a lot of the species we’d encountered last year simply weren’t around – waxwings, bean goose, pink footed goose… And to rub it in, the rarity that had been seen frequently right up to race day – an American wigeon – had performed a classic vanishing act.
Having moved on to Aughton and Ellerton, I had a text from Adam saying he’d seen two marsh harriers just after we’d seen him at The Refuge. Had the jinx befallen us?
Spot the marsh harrier
“It looks like a good day for raptors,” Rich had said earlier in the day. Slowly, the birds of prey began to prove him right. We’d been spoilt for kestrels, glimpsed a soaring sparrowhawk at Askham Bog, and marvelled at a close encounter with red kites near Melbourne (at the site pictured below), but the marsh harriers didn’t show up until we arrived at North Duffield.
We’d planned to make North Duffield our last stop, but there wasn’t much about. At least, not at first glance, but our fortunes seemed to change with one great bird – a stunning marsh harrier that slowly drifted closer and closer to the hide, until we could admire it in all its majesty without even having to lift our binoculars.
It was nearly close enough to get a photo with my mobile. See if you can spot the marsh harrier in these pitiful photos…
Owls about that then?
Inspired by our harrier, knowing we hadn’t managed a single owl yet, and with the promise of gulls coming into roost at Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings, we felt there were more birds to come. And we were right – we found a barn owl and little owl at Thorganby, had a peregrine fly over our heads atop the tower at Bank Island, and spotted a distant flock of golden plovers.
Last year’s total got nearer and nearer. As the sun sank out of sight, we decided to try one last throw of the dice, and dashed in the dark to Wheldrake Ings.
We parked on the lane and walked as far as we could before meeting the floodwater. There was a patch of dry land by the bridge at the other side, and Rich boldly strode out into the water in the hope of reaching it.
He disturbed a woodcock – another bird for the list – and then, reaching the bridge, shouted out that he could hear a tawny owl. With none of the rest of us able to hear it from our side of the water, we had to try striding out into this giant puddle and hope for the best.
Paddling in complete darkness isn’t something I’ve ever done before, and the water level rose perilously close to the top of my wellies, but it was worth it for the unmistakable wavering hoot of the tawny at the other side. We were at 94 – only one less than last year – and then came the cry of a curlew, and we had matched our previous total!
Meeting some of the other teams in the pub at Wheldrake afterwards, we found to our surprise that we’d recorded the highest total of the day.
That should have been that, but a recount gave us only 94 – still the winning score but by the most slender of margins.
But that still isn’t the end. Emanuela, our list-keeper, realised she’d forgotten to count our little egret at Heslington East and the mandarins on Castle Howard Lake, giving us a grand final total of 96 – better than last year. Not only was it the winning score in the York race, it was the highest score in Yorkshire, on a day when teams across the region take part in their own area’s bird races.
And so another day packed with unforgettable experiences, brilliant birds and great company came to a remarkable close. I’m still scraping mud out of my binocular lenses.
See Jono’s blog for our full list of species and sites, and some photos of the team in action.
Two years ago, I set myself a challenge: to find a list of ‘bogey birds’ – the species that had most eluded and frustrated me over years of birding.
I saw some that year, and have caught up with others since. Some remain stubbornly evasive. And new bogey birds have joined their ranks. Here’s how the quest is going.
Firecrest – a never-ending quest
Firecrests are tiny, but a big problem for me. Why? Because they are a dazzling little bird that I’ve always wanted to see, but they aren’t having any of it. I’ve put more effort into finding these little scamps than any other bird without so much as a fleeting hint of a sighting. But October is probably the best month to find one in my part of the world… This year, maybe?
Bogey status: number one bogey species
Hawfinch – a merry dance
Two days in Robin Hood country have seen me fail to hit my target – Hawfinches are famously elusive, and the birds that lurk in Sherwood Forest like Hood’s Merry Men led me a merry dance.
Bogey status: enhanced
Great Grey Shrike – shriking it lucky, twice
In the time since I started my quest, I’ve seen two Great Grey Shrikes – one was a distant glimpse at Heslington Tilmire and the second was at the seventh attempt early this spring. A long-staying bird at Acaster Airfield appeared to be mocking me from the undergrowth until I took my lucky mascots (my two children) with me, and it obligingly popped up for a quick but clear view. I’m also on a lucky streak with Red-backed Shrikes – one at Spurn in 2015, one at Filey this August, and another at Bempton in September.
Bogey status: tick!
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – wood you believe it?
The most surprising and exhilarating encounter with one of my bogey birds was the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that appeared unexpectedly in front of me at Strensall Common two years ago – the sort of magical birding moment that makes it all worthwhile.
Bogey status: tick!
Grasshopper Warbler – a prolonged skulk
Another notoriously tricksy bird. I still haven’t found a Grasshopper Warbler, although for a moment this spring I thought I had. On a walk at Staveley Nature Reserve, a Sedge Warbler did a cunning impression of a ‘Gropper’ and got me all excited, only to fly off chuckling to itself, revealing its true colours.
Bogey status: enhanced
Black-necked Grebe – you beauty!
I was spoilt by the easy and close-up views of several summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebes at RSPB St Aidan’s in 2015, and these gorgeous birds became an instant favourite. This January, I saw the winter-plumaged version in Scarborough Harbour, alongside my first-ever Great Northern Diver.
Bogey status: tick!
Stints – increasingly annoying
Temminck’s Stint and Little Stint are two tiny wading birds that visit the UK in spring and autumn. I would be happy to see either, but the Little Stint has overtaken its relative on my bogey list and is really starting to get on my nerves after repeated failed attempts to find one. The latest came in September, when one had been frequently reported at Thornwick Pool, Flamborough. I visited the site twice in one day and scoured every inch of it for the Little Stint, but to no avail.
Bogey status: enhanced
Goshawk and Honey Buzzard – one down!
I hedged my bets here and would have settled for either of these splendid raptors. Mixed fortunes – on a summer trip to Wykeham Forest, North Yorkshire, where both species can be found, I got a quick view of an imposing Goshawk disappearing over the tree tops moments before discovering I’d just missed a Honey Buzzard.
Bogey status: one ticked, one enhanced
Black Tern – double whammy!
The best bogey bird result since my mission has been the Black Tern. Last year, I finally saw one while out on an RSPB seabird cruise, albeit a glance of a winter-plumaged bird. This ghost was well and truly laid to rest at St Aidan’s this year, when a glorious summer-plumaged bird kindly flew around just above my head for the kind of view I’d always hoped for.
Bogey status: tick!
Twite – understated and under-spotted
Not the most spectacular of birds, but my inability to find one has made them a desirable target on my bogey bird list. Maybe this winter…
Bogey status: no change
Jack Snipe – snipe dreams
The Jack Snipe was a late addition to my bogey bird list, but two sightings in quick succession have broken the curse. The first was a decent appearance at Filey Dams last autumn; the second bursting from the undergrowth during my first bird race this January.
Bogey status: tick!
The new breed of bogey birds
The more I go birding, the more near misses and tales of avian woe I manage to rack up. These next few species are the ones that got away in the most frustrating fashion:
This long-staying rarity delighted and infuriated birders in equal measure last winter, hanging about with Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings on the edge of Dunnington, York. I was one of the infuriated ones…
Gull watching is not my area of expertise, and when confronted with a large flock on a cold winter’s day, it’s like an extreme version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ trying to pick out one of the rarer species. The Glaucous Gull, a large, pale-winged winter visitor, is the one vexing me the most.
My failure to see Filey’s long-staying Surf Scoter – a rare sea duck – last year was clear evidence of my birding jinx. The bird hung about for ages, sometimes giving very generous views, but disappeared when I turned up to see it, only to reappear the moment I got home that evening.
Like Twites, I wouldn’t be that fussed about seeing a Barred Warbler if it hadn’t proved so hard to see. Barred Warblers are unexciting to look at, but uncommon enough to cause excitement when you find one. I’ve had two near misses – turning up at Spurn Migration Festival two years ago five minutes after a Barred Warbler had been seen close to the road, and being an hour late for a sighting at Flamborough last month.
The quest continues
I have an autumn birding mission to the coast coming up soon. Will any of my bogey birds lose their status? Will new bogey birds be born? Will something totally unexpected show up? That’s the joy and the misery of birding; the hope and the glory; the woe and the anguish. One thing’s for sure – October is a great month to go birding. You just need to be in the right place at the right time.
My birdwatching year began with such promise, but my hapless pursuit of two evasive species came to dominate February and March.
After a flying start, thanks to a bird race around York in January, followed by my first Great Northern Diver in Scarborough, it seemed 2017 might be a vintage year for birding.
As winter continued, two rare birds popped up in the York area. And that’s where things started going wrong.
Pining for a bunting
The Pine Bunting in Dunnington became a birding celebrity. Hoardes of birders descended on a field on the edge of York to see a bird that is very rarely seen in this country – a handsome but elusive little chap, who was hanging out with the local Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings.
I took a day off work in early February with ambitions of seeing the Pine Bunting in the morning and maybe locating a Glaucous Gull in the afternoon.
It was a bitterly cold day, and the hours I spent that morning failing to see the exotic visitor are probably the coldest I’ve ever been while birding. Annoyingly, it was found about an hour and a half after I’d left, making this a bird with classic bogey bird potential.
I spent my afternoon getting chilled through, looking for a Glaucous Gull among the huge flocks of gulls at Rufforth and Poppleton, also near York. Glaucous Gulls visit the UK in the winter, and we’d failed to see these big brutes on the bird race. True to form, one had been seen ten minutes before I arrived, and my friend Adam, joining me for a freezing hour or two by the roadside, spotted one overhead, but my own efforts were in vain.
The Pine Bunting unexpectedly stuck around, and pictures and sightings kept appearing on Twitter, so I left work early one Friday afternoon in early March to have another go. The mission began with a frustrating traffic jam, then once I arrived, poor light made it hard to pick out any individual birds in the distant flock. It was clearly not meant to be for the Pine Bunting and me, and a new bogey bird was born.
Revenge of the bogey bird
The Great Grey Shrike was one of my original bogey birds – the list I put together in 2015 of birds I’d always wanted to see but had always somehow missed. I did manage to shrike it lucky at my second attempt that year, when I got a fleeting, distant view, but when one turned up at Acaster Airfield, three miles from home, I really fancied getting a better look. The striking grey, black and white bird – a winter visitor to the UK –was offering generous photo opportunities to half of York, so along I went before work one morning, fancying my chances. No joy. I tried again two days later, this time after work. Again, no joy, but I did see my first Grey Partridges of the year, so all was not lost.
Another two attempts followed without success, including an early-morning trip with my bird race team mate, Jono, who had already seen the shrike. He was incredulous that we couldn’t find it, but to me it was further proof that this was a bogey bird reborn. It was clearly taunting me, and it was getting personal.
On the second of those outings, I did find myself staring straight at a Little Owl skulking in a bush – a small consolation – but I’d pretty much given up on the shrike, until I heard it was still hanging around in April.
I tried again on 3rd April, when things took a farcical turn. I’d been there five minutes or less when I met a lady with seven tiny ducklings by her feet – she’d found them alone in the middle of the road, had ushered them to one side, and they’d adopter her as their mother. We couldn’t find their real mum, the ditch over the road didn’t have any water in it, and there didn’t seem a safe place to leave them. In the end, I was able to get a cardboard box from a local business. We rounded up the ducklings, put them in the box, and off they went in the lady’s car to the RSPCA – I hope she encountered their real mum just round the corner for a happy reunion. I had about ten minutes left before I needed to get back home, so legged it up the road, only to find two birders had been watching the pesky shrike and it had just disappeared…
A change of scenery, and fortune
A walk in the Yorkshire Dales with my dad brought the promise of some different birds for my year list, which had stalled somewhat while I’d been chasing the bogey birds.
We parked at Grassington, took the bus to Bolton Abbey, and walked back along the Wharfe – a beautiful walk on a gloriously sunny spring day.
We were slightly too early for the Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and Common Sandpipers to return after spending the winter in warmer climes, but I saw my first Sand Martins and Swallow of the year, and added Grey Wagtail, Nuthatch, Dipper and Green Woodpecker to my year list – and even managed to get some half-decent photos. Perhaps my birding fortunes were improving…
Shrike it lucky?
The next Wednesday morning, I got up early for another bit of pre-work birding at Acaster Airfield. The Great Grey Shrike was STILL there, a good two months after it had first been seen, and local birder Chris Gomersall described to me where he’d seen it regularly in the last few days. However, the shrike was having none of it. Chris posted another photo at the weekend of the bird on its usual perch. It was definitely smirking to itself.
But I had one last trick up my sleeve – my lucky mascots. My son had been with me when I’d had my first-ever glimpse of a Great Grey Shrike two years ago. And my daughter, on a family walk around Acaster several years ago, had accidentally found me my first-ever Garden Warbler. If anything could lure the shrike from its hiding place, it was this dynamic duo.
Following Chris’s directions, we headed up the road, slightly further on than my previous well-trodden route, and I scanned a row of small trees with my binoculars. There was no shrike, but I wanted a closer look.
As we got nearer, we stood at the side of the road, and up popped a pale, blackbird-sized bird with a long tail – the unmistakeable shape of a Great Grey Shrike. “That’s it! I’ve seen it!” I shrieked. I got a decent look at it before it dipped down to the ground, presumably looking for prey, then it rose up again for a second viewing, before disappearing into the undergrowth.
We had broken the bogey bird jinx at last. I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince the kids to join me on my quest for other bogey birds like the Firecrest or Hawfinch, but this’ll do nicely for now.