Sunday 24 March 2024

Winter 2023/24 Birding Highlights

As 2023 closed out I was back home in Yorkshire for the first day of winter, and forget blue skies with crisp days and an easterly breeze bringing the promise of snow. As with recent years, wet and windy weather dominated. This time high pressure had slowly drifted west into the North Atlantic Ocean such that it became stuck with the jet stream then rolling around the top of it. This resulted in low pressure systems "barelling" into the middle of the British Isles one after another throughout the festive period, seemingly centred on Yorkshire.

On December 21st the up to 45mph winds put me off either twitching the Black-throated Thrush in East Yorkshire or birding the moorland edge, so it was off to Old Moor RSPB. Nice to shelter and see wintering Goosander and Goldeneye, a cream crown Marsh Harrier and a Caspian Gull. Several more visits over the period produced a variety of wintering wildfowl plus Pink-footed Geese moving west late one afternoon and one more look at the Caspian Gull allowing for photos and video to be taken. A group of Lesser Redpolls (4) moved around the scrub at the top of Green Lane were nice to see, but the star attractions were a pair of adult Peregrines present on most visits. They took to resting on one of the islands rather than from a lofty perch, no doubt due to the relentless wind which in fairness did moderate from apocalyptic to only a raging gale as the year came to an end. They gave one large gull a scare and spent the rest of the time upsetting the Greylag Geese.

Caspian Gull (1st w)


Connected with the Black-throated Thrush before Christmas, it showed reasonably well at the excellent Tophill Low Nature Reserve that yielded Red-crested Pochards amongst a variety of duck on 'O' reservoir. A flooded field along the seemingly never ending entrance road to the north west held 500 Pink-footed Geese and similar number of Greylag Geese, plus the majestic Whooper Swan (30). On the way back a Red Kite flew over the M62/A1 junction.

Black-throated Thrush

Spent some time birding the moorland edge but the weather didn't allow for any wandering. Buzzards and Kestrels showed with the occasional Raven sighting. The miserable conditions forced a Barn Owl to hunt early in the afternoon and nearby a Merlin spotted on two visits was my first winter sightings of this species in the uplands. Non avian highlight being of 2 Moles walking/swimming across the road as driving rain forced them out of cover. When the miserable weather relented Fieldfares and Redwings moved from bush to bush on most visits but no big or varied finch presence. That said, one site held a very noteworthy single flock of 200 Linnets. The absence of Crossbills continue to worry. Back in the lowlands I didn't time it well for Waxwings, most had dispersed by the festive period, but a bit of luck with a Barn Owl seen flying against the street lamps on the edge of suburbia early one evening.

The New Year and birding in London, which usually would be focussed on Rainham Marshes RSPB, was punctuated early in the year by twitching the Northern Waterthrush further out in Essex near Maldon, a smart drake and brief visiting Ferruginous Duck in London at Snaresbrook's Eagle Pond, plus looking for winter gulls elsewhere on the Thames.

First up, the Northern Waterthrush, took a couple of attempts and grateful for the opportunity to connect with this rarity from North America. Why Northern and not Louisiana? I'm not expert enough to go into the minutiae, but from experience of Louisiana Waterthrush in Spring in New Jersey, USA which is a stronger bulkier looking bird than Northern Waterthrush with stand out whiter underparts that hold the front streaking, and possess a larger white supercilium. Only seen Northern Waterthrush a few times in Spring across the pond and more regularly encountered in the autumn at Cape May, New Jersey, USA. I know Louisiana Waterthrush is an early Spring migrant and I assume would therefore move south early in the autumn, making Northern Waterthrush more likely a vagrant to these shores of the two.

Northern Waterthrush

On returning from the twitch the small group of local Waxwings (up to 14) were present for their 2nd and last day. Waxwings don't fly, they float in the air.


Come on give the Ferruginous Duck a chance! Why not wild? Present briefly around a cold snap, in immaculate plumage and whilst it came close it did so with the feeding masses of Mute Swans and other wild wintering ducks before retreating to slumber beneath the cover of overhanging trees at Snaresbrook's Eagle Pond. Sadly, this site so often the wintering haunt of a cracking Caspian Gull, has drawn a blank so far this winter for this much admired gull. More details here.

Ferruginous Duck

Looking for scarce winter gulls on the Thames. It looks like there's no tipping at the landfill by Rainham Marshes RSPB, or at least none on a Saturday. Struggling to find the commoner larger gulls in the area, in any number, let alone hoping to pick out an Iceland or Glauc. Best hope is for Caspian Gulls, any wintering Yellow-legged Gulls or the occasional Mediterranean Gull, the latter is scarce in these parts at this time of year. A first visit to the gull watching site on the south of the Thames by Greenhaven Drive, Thamesmead a couple of miles upriver from Rainham Marshes RSPB. Excellent opportunity for photography and a few hours visit one Sunday late in January saw 5 Yellow-legged Gulls in the area and a brief visit of a 1st winter Caspian Gull. The Yellow-legged Gulls comprised 2x 1st winters, 2x 2nd winters and 1x adult approaching summer plumage. One of the 2nd winters had a green colour ring and was presumably the one noted as being ringed in France in 2022.

Yellow-legged Gulls

Into February the lure of both Mediterranean Gull (1st winter) and Caspian Gull (1st winter) at Wanstead, London was tempting. Got the impression they were easy to see, but they gave me the run around. The Mediterranean Gull wasn't on Jubilee Pond but on the football pitches with what seemed to be the entire world's population of Common Gulls. Nice to see this plumage. Nearby at Alexandra Lake the Caspian Gull eventually flew in, and what a stunner. It didn't have the best of relationships with Herring Gulls, but allowed for excellent study and comparison of this species alongside the commoner Herring Gulls, of which there seemed to be far more of them on this small pond compared to the whole of the Thames by Rainham Marshes RSPB during this period.

Caspian Gull

Mediterranean Gull

Not forgetting Rainham Marshes RSPB, water levels good on the reserve for wildfowl and a nice variety of wintering ducks with well into double figures of Pintail looking smart especially when lit up by the scarce winter sun. Marsh Harriers everywhere, at least 6 probably more seen throughout. A Peregrine wandered over the landfill as did a Raven on one visit that had a big dislike of a Carrion Crow. Cetti's Warblers getting into song, the occasional pinging Bearded Reedling from the reedbeds and Stonechats scattered throughout the area. Finally the wintering Short-eared Owls showed on a couple of visits, with all 3 in the air on one occasion. Nearby an impressive group of about 80 Avocets swam out the rising tide. Looks like tipping at the landfill has stopped or at least stopped on a Saturday morning, gulls thin in numbers. That being said an adult Mediterranean Gull along the shore at Coldharbour Point was nice to see amongst the Black-headed Gulls.

Mediterranean Gull

Short-eared Owl

Another 'local' twitch, this time for the White-billed Diver off Southend Pier at the end of the Thames estuary. Knew a bit of good luck was needed but gave it a go on the second Saturday in February. Easy train ride from London and, via Greggs, arrived by the Pier for opening to the news it had been seen earlier heading west towards the Pier.  A couple of Mediterranean Gulls on the way down were boosted by a group of about 20 on posts at the end, one sported a White colour ring. During the day they gently chuckled to each other and gave their distinctive mewing call as if reminding birders what to listen out for when they move around in Spring. A female type Long-tailed Duck was nice to see drifting west close inshore on the way down. Turnstones scolded the visitors at the end of the Pier whose numbers were boosted by other twitchers arriving and awaiting the giant from the Arctic.

Long-tailed Duck

Mediterranean Gulls

Scanning east and the Mulberry Harbour and various yellow buoys were serving as markers, the latter attracted a regular then another Great Northern Diver as the tide came in. Red-throated Divers seen and a female type Eider added to birders' day lists. A few Brent Geese noted though not as many as seen from the train on the mudflats on approaching Southend (50+).

Great Northern Diver

Before 1pm I picked up a large "brown and white" Diver at distance. Got others on to it and soon a crowd of birders from the upper deck were studying this bird. A bit of 'birding' pressure, but IMHO could only be a large Diver sp. at such range. To be honest the Hubble space telescope would have struggled to id this bird, but it was worth a look. At worst a very pale Great Northern Diver but studying the actual GNDs and they were essentially and consistently "black and white" when sighted throughout the day. This had to be the rare visitor, Essex's 2nd record, got to be? The bird seemingly edged closer then as drizzly rain came it disappeared into the mist. On clearing it was picked up again, slightly closer and seemingly drifting towards the Pier, or was that wishful thinking. Similar murky weather and another disappearing act. Thankfully, clearing allowed for 3rd time lucky, by which time it had made strong progress in. Whilst I couldn't make out the bill's fine details, noted a feature being its posture in that it held its head pointing upwards when swimming, a trait of this species. Also, the bump on the forehead appeared to be very pronounced. Others with better optics were happy with the bill to already call it out as the White-billed Diver. It came closer from 3pm to allow good scope views of the bill and even to see the characteristic wing scalloping indicating an immature. There was one point when it turned showing the white tip to the bill that was the "that's it" moment. How distant? Best described as good scope views but just in the bridge camera dodgy record photo zone as shown below. It was certainly enjoying the flat fish and crabs on offer on the now ebbing tide.

White-billed Diver

The following day another trip to Greenhaven Drive at Thamesmead and with thanks for the help of other birders on site connected with a couple of 1st Winter Caspian Gulls on the rising tide. Both were nice to see as was a fleeting visit from a similarly aged Yellow-legged Gull.

Caspian Gull

Back home in early February and the Shorelark in the Sheffield area was tricky to see, a hunting adult Peregrine in the area spooked the Skylarks flock, but at least this helped birders locate this elusive flock holding the rare inland visitor. Showed briefly after several hours of fog prevented viewing on this Saturday morning. Deliberately not cropped or enhanced the photo below, want to emphasise the viewing conditions on that day.

Shorelark and Skylark

On the moorland edge the apparently wintering female/immature Merlin showed well mid afternoon on the Sunday before zooming off over a moorland reservoir. Nice views of it perched on a stone wall for a few minutes, after it flew in at warp speed. Size suggested a female. Curlews returning to the moors, staging in the area (ca. 40) and noisy Oystercatchers also back and typically flight at this time of the year.

At the end of the period another visit to Greenhaven Drive, Thamesmead saw a few more Yellow-legged Gulls remaining in the area and a presumed passage Red Kite over headed towards the City.

Yellow-legged Gulls

More average photos uploaded at 'Latest UK Bird Photos'. Please enjoy.