Yorkshire birding through Canadian eyes

Yesterday was a red letter day for Verdant Wildlife as our North Yorkshire Moors and Coast clients for the day were Laura and Gene from Ottawa, Canada who found and booked us online via the power of Google and the internet.

The starting point for the day was Nottingham where I collected Laura and Gene from their accommodation and then headed up the M1, M18 and A1 towards Yorkshire. During the journey it was fascinating to chat about the differences in birds, birding, landscape and conservation culture between the UK and our Commonwealth cousins across the big pond. The weather wasn't exactly Spring-like and we were denied the chance to look for red kites, kesrels and buzzards soaring above the A1 near Harewood and Harrogate by the torrential rain. The low cloud also obscured our view of the famous white horse of Sutton Bank, our first destination and coffee stop.

We sat in the visitor centre cafe at Sutton Bank, drinking coffee, sheltering from the rain and watching the bird feeders. This gave us a good opportunity to view chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, siskin, coal tit, great tit and a couple of stunning male yellowhammers. All these species are relatively common in the UK, but were of great interest to Laura and Gene, who don't see most of these species in Canada. We discussed siskins and redpolls and their distribution on either side of the Atlantic and the fact that the coal tit looked very similar to his North American cousin the black-capped chickadee.

Next stop was Cowhouse Bank for both its bird life and the flora interest it provides. Large areas of the woodland floor were covered with wood sorrel, although in the rain, its leaves and flowers were closed - these would unfurl later when the weather improved and the rain eased. The local wood ant nests were fairly quiet but we threw a couple of chunks of cheese onto them and watched the hardy scouting ants find them and then report back to the rest of the nest that food was available and needed to be harvested. Returning to the nest later we found the cheese covered in ants all busily cutting off tiny chunks and carrying them away into the nest.

Despite the rain a chiffchaff sang intermittently and a couple of male wrens were engaged in a "sing-off", each desperately trying to out sing the other. The distinctive descending scale song of a willow warbler drifted through the damp woodland and a male yellowhammer treated us to his "little bit of bread and no cheese" song from high up in a larch tree.

Slowly the rain began to ease. Moving towards a more open area of the woodland where some of the conifers had recently been clear-felled we sat a brown bird sat up on a tree. As the bird took off and began to sing we could tell it was a tree pipit and we watched as he performed his display flight for us. Heading back to the car a solitary swift flew overhead, not as the usual break-neck speed, but much slower giving us good views and a chance to compare him to the more familiar species of swift that Laura and Gene were used to.

Setting off by car along the moorland road we stopped to watch lapwings performing their display flights and wound down the winds so we could listen to their amazing calls. A male pheasant with three females was in a nearby field and we stopped to observe them. Taking a tour with clients from abroad was a real eye-opener to me. Birds that we regularly take for granted and wouldn't give a second glance to on most occasions were the source of great pleasure and delight for Laura and Gene. Normally a pheasant would barely register for the majority of UK birders, but we studied them closely and noted how stunning the male plumage actually is and how beautifully marked the females also are.

Meadow pipits and linnets were added during the drive and then a nice and unexpected surprise of a couple of whimbrel in amongst a group of lapwings and curlew gave us the chance to compare the differences between the species. Red grouse and red-legged partridge put in an appearance and we admired them with the fresh eyes of someone new to UK birding and excited by each and every species encountered.

After a quick stop for coffee and sandwiches from the fantastic Cedar Barn Farm Shop we headed off to our final and most exciting destination of the day - the amazing spectacle of RSPB Bempton Cliffs. On arrival we were greeted by the familiar noise of tree sparrows, one of Bempton's guaranteed species at any time of year. Watching the antics of these noisy, energetic and charismatic birds is always a pleasure and we chatted about what a shame they have been in such steep decline and how so many people may miss out on seeing these birds in places they used to once thrive.

Heading to the cliffs we stopped to admire a singing dunnock and the skylark's song drifting across the field from high above. The cliff tops did not disappoint. Kittiwakes were everywhere, all busily building their nests, pulling lumps of grass out of the cliff side or defending their prime piece of sea view real estate. A closer look at the sea revealed large rafts of razorbills and guillemots, but no puffins. Setting in the telescope on the gannetry showed these amazing birds at their best. From a distance they can look fairly black and white but up close the yellow on the head and the blue on the bill is far more obvious and striking.

Gannets - RSPB Bempton Cliffs | Verdant Wildlife
Gannets - RSPB Bempton Cliffs

 

We studied a mixed group of razorbills and guillemots huddled on the side of the cliff, searching for clues to help us differentiate between the two. Razorbills are most definitely black and white with a large, broad bill whereas guillemots are more chocolate brown and have a more slender bill. Armed with this knowledge, the next task was to try and spot them when floating on the sea. This proved difficult for a while until the light chance and a small, but welcome spot of sunshine illuminated the floating rafts of birds, thus making the blacks and chocolate browns much more obvious.

Razorbill
Razorbill

 

Guillemot | Verdant Wildlife
Guillemot

 

A single shag was splashing and swimming around amidst the auks and we located three puffins amongst them. Normally by now the cliff tops are covered in these comical looking birds, but yet again the late Spring and other issues related to pollution at sea seemed to have diminished their numbers. Hopefully when I return again next week their numbers will have swelled back towards the usual population size. As we headed back we were serenaded by a wren, a blackbird and a whitethroat, a nice way to end the day.

 

Laura and Gene | Verdant Wildlife
Laura and Gene - My New Canadian Friends

 

Driving back towards Pickering and the holiday cottage where Laura and Gene were going to stay, we once again chatted about the day and the birds we had seen. Guiding today had been an absolute pleasure despite the earlier rain and it was enlightening and invigorating to have seen even the commonest birds through new eyes and to appreciate each and every one in its own special way. I look forward to seeing Laura and Gene again next year and exploring another habitat and its denizens with them.

Andrew

If you would like to experience a day in the North Yorkshire Moors then take a look at our calendar or contact us (info@verdantwildlife.co.uk) if you have a specific date in mind.

One thought on “Yorkshire birding through Canadian eyes”

  • Laura Doliner

    We did have a wonderful day. Thanks so much for the habitat and life history commentary as well as the field marks and song identifications. We'll be in touch to set up another tour when we fly back over the pond next year!
    Laura and Gene

    Reply
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