The last thing I expected on a dreary, calm early February day was news of a Great Skua at Wheldrake Ings! This is a mega record for the York area, with only four previous records published in YOC reports:
2007 Malton, 11th November. Picked up alive and
released at Bempton.
2007 Ellerton Ings, 13th September.
1983 York University, 14th November. Flew east.
1981 Wheldrake Ings, 26th April. Appeared in snow and
a force 8 north-east wind
I also began to worry about the fact that at this time of year, the identity should be carefully scrutinised (if possible) to eliminate the mega rare South Polar Skua, and this could be an outside possibility. Either way, this was a bird I really wanted to see, so after a nail-biting few hours, I managed to escape work early and shot down there as quickly as a I could.
Fortunately, Craig Ralston had kept the Bonxie under observation, so within seconds I was watching the distant, but menacing dark form of a large skua sitting on the water near the 'Cormorant Trees' in front of Tower Hide. Fantastic! I legged it along the muddy riverside path to Tower Hide, just in time to see the skua fly off south - oh no!
To my delight, the gathering gull roost attracted the bird back in, scaring every gull on the ings in the process, all of which headed off down the valley. The skua landed on the water again in front of the hide. By now it was 4.40 and the light was starting to fail, particularly as it was fairly dreary. Tim Jones advised on the features I should look for to help with the identification but the poor light and distance made this very difficult.
The Bonxie from Tower Hide.
The Bonxie got up and flew over to Storwood Ings, where it flushed a huge flock of Black-headed Gulls all of which panicked at this big dark menace heading straight for them. The bird landed on the flood in the distance and disappeared behind the bushes. A few minutes later, the skua got up again and flew straight towards me landing again in front of the hide. By now it was little more than a silhouette even though it was only c500m away. I wouldn't be adding much to the ID debate! I headed back to the bridge at dusk and met Gary Taylor who was watching the bird in the gathering gloom from there.
Later, I sent the excellent photos taken by the finder of the bird Trevor Walton to my old friend Dick Newell, large skua expert to see what he thought of the bird's identity. Here are Trevor's photos - I hope he doesn't mind me sharing them:
Photos of the Wheldrake Great Skua by Trevor Walton
"First impressions of your skua are Bonxie, and on closer inspection I think I can justify that.
looks like the primary moult score is something north of 45, which
would fit a Bonxie in its 3CY or older, or it would fit a 1st cycle
(2CY) South Polar. The dark hood on the flying bird, the capped
appearance of the perched bird, the nature of the streaking on the
scapulars, the generally rufous appearance, the non compact structure
(subjective feature when you have your eye in!) all point to Bonxie.
lack of streaking on the wing coverts means it is probably a 3CY Bonxie
at the end of its second moult cycle. An older bird would be streaked
It is well worth looking critically at any skua like
this, it is now too long since those 3 South Polars turned up over 10
So, Yorkshire twitchers could probably sleep easy, it was 'only' a Great Skua, but still a great record for the York area and one I certainly didn't expect to add to my York list in February! The bird moved to Swantail Ings and was present until dusk, so hopefully would be there in the morning.
Thanks to Trevor for finding the bird and reporting it to Craig and for Craig getting the news out so quickly and then helping me see the bird later.
The Bonxie did indeed roost and was still present on 5th February.
It felt cold out today. Had an hour or so late morning in the Rufforth area. There was a handsome first winter Glaucous Gull on the airfield and a first winter Caspian Gull. Phonescoping was a bit tricky in the wind and with frozen hands! A Peregrine was hunting and this was making the birds a bit jumpy too.
Went down to the flooded field near the village and there were two more Caspian Gulls there, showing really nicely in the sunshine. Shortly, a snowstorm came in on the biting wind and I fled.
Later, I came back but the gulls had mostly gone, but two Short-eared Owls were hunting the fields, being tossed around like bags in the wind.
It has been a pretty hellish year or so work-wise due mainly to one big issue that is rolling on and on. Today, a meeting at Staveley, followed by a walk round the Trust's nature reserve adjacent to the village with colleagues and local volunteers, reminded why I do this job, and despite what some people think, the Trust (collectively the staff, vols, members and funders) is doing some great stuff for Yorkshire's wildlife.
What a cracking site Staveley is. The Trust had just bought a major extension when I arrived in 2010 and five years on, it looks brilliant. The big central meadow which has been reverted to a wildflower meadow looked cracking, and the wet grassland, reedbeds and scrapes around the new extension teemed with wildfowl and waders. The passion from the local guys gushed and we spent a happy couple of hours discussing the wildlife of the site as we walked round.
Highlights were a dog Otter which was busy fishing for fry (and one small Eel) in the eastern lagoon for about thirty minutes allowing great views. Sadly, my pics were not great. All the ducks were staying away but a couple of Mute Swans seemed quite interested and followed it around. This has to be one of the most reliable places to see Otters in Yorkshire. Later on, we looked at a trail the Otters have made where they cross from the lagoon into a drain and then over into the west lagoon. There was spraint deposited and I couldn't resist a sniff! A definite bouquet of Sweet Vernal Grass....Nearby, I heard a Water Rail and saw a Ruff flying about with the Lapwings. Also, c100 Wigeon counted, three Goldeneye and quite a lot of other wildfowl.
If the Trust hadn't raised the money (from HLF) to buy Staveley it could have been landfilled or turned into a jet skiing centre which would have been a tragedy and caused much damage to the original reserve. As it is, it is now a brilliant wildlife site and will be protected in perpetuity.
Nipped out to Rufforth to have a look at the gulls lunchtime on Friday, as for once, I had a car to hand. Worth the trip with two very smart first-winter Caspian Gulls loafing on the airfield along with a very keen Chris Gomersall who had been there all morning and seen a selection of stuff.
Caspian Gull, on the left at the front.
On Sunday took the kids out for a walk but the water was so deep in the LDV that I couldn't wade or drive through the flood to get on to Wheldrake Ings for risk of being swept to a watery death. A distant bit of scoping revealed 40 Curlew heading over, which is the most I have seen round here for a while. We headed south to Thorganby which proved to be a bit of good fortune when a small, sleek duck twisted past and landed with a splash on the floods - a female Smew! Nice one. The first in the York area this winter. Unfortunately it was a bit distant to get a photo and I had forgotten my phone. Vicky leant me hers so at least I could tweet out the news. Lots of common stuff on the water and a Barn Owl flew past nice and close allowing the kids both to see it. Smart.
Into the Forest, one of my favourite places. It looked stunning today, with a fair amount of snow lying, lit up by sunshine. It was colder up here, with the car thermometer reading -1. Stopping at my first vantage point I couldn't believe my luck when within minutes the stiff-winged slow flap of a displaying female Goshawk came in over the ridge from the north hotly pursued by her smaller suitor. I watched them for a minute and decided I wanted better views, so I hightailed it down the valley - big mistake - I didn't see them again!
Heading further west I briefly saw another Gos, but she disappeared behind the ridge all too quickly. This was getting tantalising! I moved further, negotiating the snowy road and pulled in at another favourite spot. Scanning the southern ridge revealed nothing, but suddenly a Gos called from the wooded knoll behind me- and it was close! I walked quietly up the road and suddenly saw a raptor fly off through the trees, I retraced my steps and amazingly, the bird casually came flying along the top of the wood and landed in the top of a Scot's Pine - unbelievable! The bird was a big immature female and was only a field away from me! I got the scope on her: she was a big buffy beast with big drop-shaped black streaks on her underside and a chocolate brown upperside. Her eye was yellow, not the orange of the adults. She glowered around and then took off before I managed to get a photo, and dropped into the wood. A few tense minutes later and I heard her calling again, and then boom, there she was, flapping over the canopy again, she cruised round and passed right in front of me - what a view! She flew in big lazy circles round the copse, just above tree-top height, making three or four passes in front of me. Suddenly, another bird came out and sparred with her briefly - an adult male Gos! She headed off back into the copse - I didn't see where the male went. A fabulous start to the Goshawk season.
Headed to Filey which looked stunning in the winter sun. The tide was in, so I walked the full length of Carr Naze and dropped down the end. A single Snow Bunting flew north calling. Two birds just offshore proved to be Great Northern Divers - nice! They were joined by two Common Scoters, but try as I might, I could not find the Surf Scoter that has been hanging out for a few weeks, even with the kind help of Mark Pearson. I dropped down on to the Brigg and had a look at the waders, adding a couple of Purple Sandpipers to the yearlist. Plenty of auks off the Brigg, but I couldn't find anything rare. After soaking up beautiful views of the majestic loons (which seemed to both be adults), I renewed my efforts to find the Surfy, but to no avail. Next stop - Wykeham!
It dawned clear and bright, with frost on the car and snow on the Wolds. The orange sun rose as I passed Bridlington and dropped down to Flamborough. I had the place to myself so walked round the grass field (owned by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) to the east of North Landing. Sadly, the three Richard's Pipits were nowhere to be seen, with two showy Rock Pipits and a single Meadow Pipit being nice, but little consolation. After checking a few more fields, I headed back to where I had started and scanning the first field, there were three large buffy pipits - surely these must be the Dicks! No sooner had I scoped them than they took off and flew calling down to the bottom of the field, where they started feeding happily in the early morning sun. I watched them for the next hour or so, noting their pale lores and checking out their median covert bar, to see whether I could pick out the pointed dark tips to the centres of the adult median coverts - I could, but it wasn't easy! The pipits showed well but did not come closer than about 20 metres. They walked purposefully through the long tussocky grass, occasionally stopping for a few moments to look around, particularly if the local gulls started calling. They were presumably well aware of the threat of the local Peregrine. Whilst watching the trio, a Water Rail suddenly squealed in the ditch in the gulley behind me - unexpected to say the least! I managed at least one shot with all three in the same frame, but it wasn't easy as one of the birds seemed less clingy than the other two. Smart birds.