Saturday, 26 December 2015

Crossbill - Countdown - 9 Days to Go!

January can be a good time to see Crossbills. They time their breeding to coincide with the concentration of seeds in pine cones. Large conifer plantations can be good places to try and look for Crossbills. However, some years there are lots of seeds in pine cones, and in other years there is a famine, and numbers of Crossbills fluctuate in consequence. I have no idea of the situation this year, but I remain hopeful that we will find Crossbills in 2016. 
Crossbill (c) 2015 Vince Cowell
Breeding in January would seem to be a perilous gamble, but it seems to work fairly well. The BBC Tweet of the Day programme on the Crossbill mentioned that outside Moscow the temperature was something like -35 degrees centigrade, but inside the nest it was +35!

The extraordinary beak of the Crossbill has evolved to winkle out the seeds from pine cones. It is a very dry foodstuff, so if you do know a haunt of Crossbills it's worth keeping an eye on any nearby freshwater puddles or pools, as they often need to take a drink. Crossbills are large finches, bigger than Chaffinches and Bullfinches, but smaller than Hawfinches. Females are predominantly green in colour, and some males may be greenish too, but mature males are often bright red in colour. 
Singing Greenish male Crossbill
Crossbills spend a lot of time at the top of conifers extracting the seeds from the cones, so can be quite hard to see. The secret is to listen out for their distinctive pinging nasal flight calls, and when you spot them in flight follow them with a pair of binoculars to see where they land. As long as they haven't disappeared in the depths of the wood you should be able to observe them at work at the top of the tree. 
Male Crossbill
I've no idea if we'll be lucky enough to find them in 2016, but I'll be listening out for them, and will bring them to everyone's attention if we do hear their distinctive call. 
Record shot of crossbill in flight

Friday, 25 December 2015

Bittern - Countdown - 10 Days to Go!

The winter term is traditionally the best time to have good sightings of Bitterns. I believe one icy day at Potteric Carr we saw up to 5 individuals either sliding on the ice, or by the edges of the reedbed, and even one perched on top of the reeds. It is the cold weather that drives them to leave the reeds, and sometimes to indulge in unusual behaviour. In the bad winter of 2010 a Bittern left the Willow Marsh reedbed and speared and then swallowed a rat that used to infest the feeding station. When the weather was at its most severe the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust bought in fish from a fishmonger to ensure the Bitterns survived. The freshwater fish were eagerly devoured, but a cod was left untouched.
Female Bittern at Tophill Low
Bitterns are a large member of the Heron family. When the classes began a dozen years ago there were reported to be only around 10 booming males in the UK, but now I believe 50 have been recorded. Male Bitterns start booming about mid-February to attract mates. It is the deepest sound made by any British bird, and in the correct weather conditions can almost travel a mile. It sounds like a giant blowing over an old-fashioned glass milk-bottle, or a distant foghorn.
Male? Bittern at Far Ings (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
Bittern in Flight
Bitterns are brownish or warm buff birds with darker vertical stripes, green legs, and the males have blue between the base of the bill and the eye. They sometimes stalk between areas of reedbed, but we have also seen one swimming at the back of a reedbed. The commonest view we've had is catching sight of them flying from one area of reeds to another, and this is probably the view we've had more often than any other. When they think they've been observed they will often freeze, and point their bill upwards and elongate themselves and they seem to merge into the reeds.  This works marvellously in a reed bed, but can look very strange away from the reeds! 
Bittern Skypointing - in the wrong habitat
Skypointing in the right habitat
They are very territorial and are known to have fights with other Bitterns. We think we've only observed this once when a Bittern in a channel between the reeds at Old Far Ings suddenly began to puff itself into strange shapes as it looked into an area of the reeds not visible to us in the hide. I have twice seen them fighting in mid-air, once over the old Far Ings car park, and the second time during an evening class, when 2 birds chased each over all the reserve.  
Aggression towards the reedbed
 Standing on the Reeds (c) 2013 Dave Hill
There are at least 2 venues in which we may catch up with Bitterns next term, but there is always the chance at Tophill Low too, so the odds are fairly high on us encountering this enigmatic species once again fairly soon.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Crane - Countdown - 14 Days to Go!

Another bird which was virtually unexpected in these parts when the classes were launched 12 years ago was the Common Crane.  However, as far back as April 2008 we had an encounter with this species at Tophill Low.  The Thursday morning group were ensconced in a hide overlooking South Marsh West when a honking sound was heard, and there fairly high in the air were 2 Cranes flying north following the course of the river Hull. My camera was in the car, but Jackie Dawson managed to take a couple of photos before the birds passed beyond our sight.
Common Crane at Watton NR (c) 2014 Tony McLean
Common Crane (c) 2008 Jackie Dawson  [Tiny files] 
There were rumours at the time that Cranes were once more breeding in Yorkshire and later it was confirmed that they'd been breeding annually in Yorkshire since 2002.
 Common Cranes at Tophill (c) 2010 Richard Hampshire
Of course north of Tophill Low is Hutton Cranswick, and Cranswick gets its name from being an ancient site of nesting Cranes! As far as I know our birds didn't land anywhere Cranswick, but continued flying north for some time. One course participant reckoned many years ago that they were nesting in the Scarborough area, but I've never heard any official confirmation that he was correct in this. Since then they have even nested in Scotland!
 Cranes over Tophill (c) 2010 Richard Hampshire
Cranes were served up in large numbers at medieval banquets, so must have been fairly numerous at that time, but they probably became extinct as a breeding species during the reign of Elizabeth I. They have a low productivity rate, as they are especially susceptible to land predators like foxes, and disturbance from humans, so any nesting attempts have to be carefully protected.  
Common Crane
In the summer of 2010 I was checking out a potential new venue with birders on the same day when we had an amazing encounter with fighting male Adders, when a friend turned round for some reason, and called out and we caught sight of at least 2 cranes flying over the conifers. These were closer than the 2 cranes shown in the Tophill photos. 
Common Crane
More recently I was doing a recce at another location with my nephew when we spotted a crane foraging along the edge of a field. Much later he looked back and a crane was flying behind us and headed for a large reedbed to the north of our viewpoint.  
Common Crane

Last year Tony McLean managed to capture a wonderful flight photo at the Watton Nature Reserve, which abuts Tophill Low. This photo may be seen at the top of this blog. In the autumn of last year or the year before a Crane took up residence for many weeks at Leven Carrs, so sightings are becoming more regular and prolific.

Next year we will be visiting several places where there is the potential of spotting a Crane, but whether we'll actually be successful won't be known until several months from now. I'm sure we won't see them well enough to obtain a photo as good as Tony's, but hopefully we'll manage a better one than the ones I took on the edge of a field a few years ago.

What is more certain is that the chances of every class observing a crane flying over becomes more likely each year that they manage to breed successfully, and the young birds disperse to locate a new suitable territory.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Red Kite - Countdown - 15 Days to Go!

One of the most attractive birds of prey we will be watching in the New Year is the Red Kite. These are stunning birds, with a wonderful blend of colours. When the classes first started 12 years ago this January, Red Kites weren't really established in this area, but we did see them in a couple of places. Since that time a reliable large winter roost began, and grows every year, and more importantly there are now quite a few established breeding sites. As the Red Kite continues to breed successfully and increases, it is bound to start nesting in new locations, so keep your eyes open!
Red Kite (c) 2015 Maurice Gordon
Before the introductions on the Harewood estate near Leeds seeing kites in East Yorkshire was virtually unthinkable. Hundreds of years ago kites were fairly common and widespread, and even cleaned up the rubbish thrown out on to the London streets. Then birds with hooked beaks were demonised and persecuted until they almost died out. In the 1970s there were just a few Red Kites left in a diminishing gene pool in a few Welsh valleys, but the re-introductions have been incredibly successful and even reinvigorated the native population.  It is now possible to see Red Kites all over the UK, even in our largely flat East Yorkshire. 
Red Kite
We were at Beacon Ponds at Kilnsea in 2006 when a wing-tagged Red Kite flew South, and we saw another there this year. I have also seen them near Thorngumbald and Paull Holme Strays. 
The 2006 Red Kite going south through Beacon Ponds
Red Kites predominantly eat carrion, but in this area they have also been observed feeding on earthworms, and on one memorable occasion in early Autumn seen to be taking advantage of a mass emergence of craneflies. 
2 Red Kites (c) 2015 Chris Cox
Red Kites are charismatic birds of prey with relatively long thin wings, and a long deeply forked tail. The tail is a ruddy brown, and a flick from that can completely change the direction in which the kite is travelling. The long wings are tipped with black edges, and have white areas underneath and brownish patches on top. The head in adults is also whitish, which isn't a common head colour among other UK birds of prey.  
Collecting Twigs
We have occasionally seen Red Kites carrying nesting material in February. This usually consists of twigs, but has also included moss and on one occasion some wool, which it no doubt planned to use to line its nest. In Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale a character points out that it is the time of year that kites build their nest when you need to keep an eye on your lesser linen from theft by kites. At that period washed clothing was left on hedgerows to dry, and kites would swoop down to take this material to adorn their nests. A few years ago when all our local kite nests were monitored, and the young were measured and ringed, it was found that this habit still continues.  A nest was located with a small England car flag in the nest, and even as recently as this year some small cuddly toys were discovered near a nest in Yorkshire. 
Please keep your eyes open for Red Kites, especially with nesting material, appearing in new locations this spring. If you think you may have observed a new nesting location, please pass this information on to those still monitoring our Red Kites to ensure this new nest site is successful. Yorkshire Red Kites

Monday, 21 December 2015

Little Owl - Countdown - 16 Days to Go!

The Little Owl used to be a very easy bird to see at any time of the year, but it has declined markedly since 1970. It is very site faithful, as they are mainly sedentary birds, but they can be easier to spot in winter when the leaves surrounding their nesting holes are no longer concealing them.
Little Owls in July
 What do you think?
Little Owls are probably the most diurnal of our owls, which means that they are much easier to see in the daytime. On sunny winter afternoons they have a habit of soaking in the late winter sunshine before it gets dark, but they can also be seen sunbathing in the mornings too. On dull days they can be much harder to find. 
Taken outside Warter by my nephew (15 at the time)
 Before being eaten by Tawny Owls in Thixendale
Little Owls appear mainly dark brown, but a good view allows you to see that they are liberally covered with pale streaks and spots. They are a little larger than Blackbirds, but are certainly much wider! Their pale eyebrows often give them a cross expression, which can look extremely comical, and may be one reason why they are extremely popular with class participants when we do manage to observe an individual. 
A Pair from 2018 Calendar Cover (c0 2015 Maggie Bruce
 Chicks in West Yorkshire (c) 2015 Mark Waller
 Well-grown chicks in South Yorkshire (c) 2015 Dave Simmonite
Little Owls have been located in the British fossil record, but they died out in antiquity. They were reintroduced from continental stock in the 18th and 19th-centuries, and quickly spread throughout much of England. Many introductions, planned or accidental, have caused problems, such as Grey Squirrel, Ruddy Duck, Canada Goose, Black Swan, Ring-necked Parakeets but the Little Owl seems to have found a perfect niche, which doesn't appear to have had any negative consequences on other species, or on the environment. 
East Yorkshire (c) 2015 Chris Cox
Dropping like a Brick 
Changes in farming practices since 1970 seem to be the main reason behind the decline in this species, and today in East Yorkshire they seem to be confined to farmland near livestock. They feed on moths or large beetles attracted to the dung of sheep, cows or pigs. Of course this diet is supplemented by worms, and small rodents. 
In East Yorkshire (c) 2015 Tony Robinson
If you see a Little Owl flying they appear to have all the aerodynamic qualities of a brick! Unfortunately, I've never been able to catch a really good photograph of this species in mid-air, but I will keep on the look-out. Participants on the course will be told the best places to look out for this charismatic species in their localities, and how best to avoid any disturbance to them. There is a famous pair near Beverley, which are perhaps over-visited. Please do not park right next to their tree, but wind you're car window down well before arriving, and park up well away, and on the opposite side of the road, where you should be able to observe them without disturbance. 
Playing Dead? (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
 Can they see me? (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
 Maybe? (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce
 Nah (c) 2014 Maggie Bruce

Will any of those on the New Year course be as lucky as Maggie who managed to photograph her local owl indulging in extremely bizarre behaviour. She posted her pictures on a forum asking what people thought was happening, answers ranged from suggestions that it was anting, sunbathing, playing dead, or even dying. However, one expert believes that the bird was simply having a snooze in a warm and relatively safe location. Happy Little Owl Hunting! 

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - Countdown - 17 Days to Go!

Winter and the early Spring months are traditionally the best times of the year to try and see Lesser-Spotted Woodpeckers. This is almost the holy grail for birdwatchers. There are some birders who have been looking for birds all their life who have never seen a "Lesser Pecker" or a LSW, as it is known for short.  They spend the vast majority of their time in the tree-tops, so once the leaves come out they become very difficult to see.  Sightings are also made more difficult because this species has suffered drastic declines since 1970.
Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (c) 2015 David Aitken
If a non-expert informs you that they have seen a LSW, the first thing to do is ask them if it was the size of a Sparrow or a Chaffinch. If they say "no, it was the size of a thrush", then they have seen a Great Spotted Woodpecker.  
Male Great Spotted Woodpecker
It is seven years since I heard a loud Nuthatch-like call in an area of Silver Birches above a mountain biking area on Skipwith Common, but couldn't see the bird. A few minutes later a Friday afternoon participant said he could see a woodpecker in his bins, "but it's a very small woodpecker." Apparently, after this I became rather excited, as I'd never seen a LSW before. Ours was a male as the rather poor photographs I was able to take show. Rather amazingly only a few days later we encountered another one on a Wednesday morning. This one was heard calling again, but the views were rather poor, and not everyone had a very good view. The secret seems to be listen out for their Kestrel-like call in a Silver Birch woodland before the trees come into leaf. 

2 Female Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers (c) 2015 Mark Waller
Both birds are pied, largely appearing black and white, unless you manage to get a really close view of the male's head. The Great Spotted has 2 prominent large white shoulder patches, whilst the Lesser lacks these, but has a row of white horizontal line running like a ladder down its back. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers drum like the more familiar species, but their drumming is higher-pitched, lasts longer and doesn't fade away like the shorter drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker.  
Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was the bogey-bird of one of the most expert birders on the classes. He has made many special trips over the years to catch up with the species at Wheldrake, Rufford, Clumber Park, Potteric Carr and Thorne Moors without any success. However, the other week at Tophill Low after a morning on the Wolds with Red Kites he walked up to North Marsh hide, and at last set his eyes on this bird.  Unfortunately, the 3 others he was with didn't get on to it in time for them to see it too.  
Male Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker
Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (c) 2008 Richard Hampshire
It would be great if some of the less experienced birders on the classes manage to see this little jewel in the New Year!  I will certainly have my ears open for the opportunity.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at Potteric Carr (c) 2010 Tony Robinson