Skip to content

The winter birds of the Yorkshire coast

January 29, 2013

These articles were published here in three parts by Yorkshire Coast Nature in 2013.

In the first part of his inside guide to mid-winter birding on the coast, YCN’s Mark James Pearson looks at that most charismatic and diverse of families, the waders.

Purple Sandpiper

One of the many luxuries of living on the North Yorkshire coast is the opportunity for entertaining year-round birding. At many other locations, even those which may be productive during migration and breeding seasons, the winter months present rapidly diminishing returns, and can be bleak for even the most dedicated birder.

Over here on the rich and varied shores of God’s Own County, however, there’s always plenty to enjoy if you know where to look, and finding something special is always a possibility.

Waders – or shorebirds, as they’re known on the other side of the Atlantic (and somewhat more appropriately in this instance) – are a special feature of our coastline, from the sandy beaches of Redcar to the boulder-strewn undercliff of Speeton, and pretty much everywhere in between.

Sanderling

Sanderling

While in theory you can find several of the commoner species anywhere where the tide rolls in and out, there are a handful of ‘honeypots’ that host many of our regular wintering waders without the need for long treks or the intervention of lady luck. Some of these hotspots also serve to conveniently concentrate many of our winter waders into close-up and often multi-species flocks.

The most reliable and easily accessed wader hotspots are at seaside towns, and the best of these are Filey and Scarborough. At Filey, concentrations of waders can be at any one of several favoured neighbouring locations (or indeed, at all of them), partially depending on the tide. The Brigg – the dramatic, rocky plateau which spears out into the North Sea at the base of the eroding promontory known locally as Carr Naze – is a traditionally-favoured feeding and roosting site, and waders can be seen here at any time of day.

As well as numerous, approachable and entertaining Oystercatchers, Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, Redshanks and Dunlins are ubiquitous; small flocks of Sanderlings brighten up the bay corner on even the dullest of days, the odd Curlew is usually present, Knot are relatively regular, and scarcer visitors are well worth keeping an eye open for, too. On a good day, a haul of ten or more wader species isn’t unusual.

Turnstone

Turnstone

High tide roosts tend to congregate at favoured spots along the southern flank of Carr Naze, often close to the bay corner; here, tightly-packed groups of Turnstones, Oystercatchers and Purple Sandpipers hunch together against the crashing waves just below them.

Despite the very public and oft-disturbed nature of the Country Park (the public land and car-park by the Brigg), the open grass is often graced by waders, especially at high tide (although at other times too), and this area provides perhaps the best opportunity to get extraordinarily close to the birds in question.

Slow moving or stationary vehicles pose little or no problem to the mixed groups of Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Turnstones, which can come within a couple of metres with a little patience and shrewd manouvring; look carefully and a Bar-tailed Godwit or Knot could well be probing the soft soil for invertebrates alongside them.

Oystercatcher

Oystercatcher

The harbour at Scarborough is accessible to the public, and is a wonderful place to get up close and personal with several of the commoner species. Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers are the main attraction here, and the former are so tame that they often actually approach observers in and around the car-park on the southern side of the harbour. The latter congregate on the sea defences, allowing for great views and close approach.

Not that these enchanting visitors are by any means confined to the above locations; find yourself a stretch of relatively undisturbed coastline here, and the chances are, you’ll be in the company of waders. Better still, if your chosen stretch has several differing kinds of tidal habitat, and you’ll likely find at least several species present. Even at low tide, many of the birds described can be seen, but they’re more likely to be thinly scattered across their chosen feeding areas, and thus much less easy to gain good views of.

Knot

Knot

Of all the aforementioned species, two are particularly evocative of the North Yorkshire shoreline in winter. Sanderlings are perhaps the most iconically wintry presence on our beaches. Relatively short-billed, doe-eyed, and sometimes fantastically approachable, they’re also noticeably pale, with a distinctively frosty overall appearance. Often found in small, hyperactive parties hurrying along the surfline, they can appear almost remote-controlled, legs whirring like mechanical wheels.

Perhaps the most coveted wader along our close-season shores, Purple Sandpipers are the quintessential Yorkshire coast poster-bird of the winter months. Breeding no closer than the wildflower-festooned tundra of northern Scandinavia, they require rocky, wave-bashed, seaweed-strewn shores on which to spend the remainder of their year, and are thus very much at home here.

Stocky, characterful and with a beautifully subtle, smoky-purple plumage, they can be found probing around rockpools with their medium-length, orange-based bills, and teetering along precipitous, surf-drenched ledges sensibly avoided by other species. Our coast hosts significant numbers, and is thus an internationally important area for them.

Purple Sandpipers

Purple Sandpipers

This article was originally published here by Yorkshire Coast Nature in 2013.

If you think lakes and ponds are the best places to watch ducks in winter, think again. In part two of his guide to seasonal birding on the coast, YCN’s Mark James Pearson goes in search of Yorkshire’s special seafaring wildfowl

Male Long-tailed Duck

Male Long-tailed Duck

Spring tides, white horses, crashing waves, rugged coastlines and an unmistakably saline taste in the onshore wind; hardly the kind of scenerio that most of us would associate with ducks. Gulls, divers, auks, perhaps; but surely not that diverse and characterful family of waterbirds, familiar to many as stalwarts of freshwater.

Thankfully for those of us lucky enough to dwell on the North Yorkshire coast, nothing could be further from the truth. The bays, harbours, and sheltered coves of our coastline provide perfect havens for a host of admirably hardy, seafaring ducks, from as far afield as Siberia, Finland and Iceland.

With the advantage of top-quality waterproofing, many ducks migrate over the ocean, often exploiting the option of resting on its surface; indeed, finding a duck which is generally associated with freshwater bobbing around happily on the open sea is not as uncommon as one might expect.

Shovelers

Shovelers

But while theoretically pretty much any duck species may be found along the coast, there’s a handful which account for the vast majority of those present in any given winter. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two groups: seaducks – i.e. those which actively seek a pelagic lifestyle (at least outside of their short breeding season), and generalists – i.e. those species which are adaptable and somewhat catholic in their choice of habitat.

Of the seaducks, perhaps the most familiar is the Common Eider. Well known (at least to those of us of a certain age) for their remarkably soft down, used to line their nests and, latterly, re-used as bedding for Homo sapiens – Eiders are the quintessential seaduck, almost never straying beyond the coast and the open ocean. Burly, thickset and yet supremely graceful, they’re the masters of the wave-smashed shoreline, preferring areas of the coast where the seabed is rich in crustaceans, their principle food source.

Eiders are the largest of our seaducks, and despite their sometimes confusing immature and ‘eclipse’ plumage phases, size and shape alone are usually obvious enough for a positive ID. Adults are fairly straightforward at this time of year – males are a superb combination of white, black and mint green, while the female’s plumage is a subtly vermiculated warm brown overall.

Female Long-tailed Duck

Female Long-tailed Duck

Common Scoters are the other default seaduck of the North Yorkshire coast in the winter. Much smaller, neater and daintier than Eiders, they’re relatively easy to identify with reasonable views. Proportionally rather rotund and ‘smooth-edged’, Common Scoters are just as at home on the open waves, despite their more delicate build.

Male Common Scoters are jet black, with a patch of yellow on their relatively small bills; females are dark brown with a pale cheek patch, giving a capped appearance. They can be found anywhere along the coastline in ones, twos, small parties or even in large flocks.

Their rarer cousins Velvet Scoters are irregularly found along our coastline in winter in very small numbers, often as fly-bys past well-known watchpoints. However, they also have a penchant for joining flocks of Common Scoters, and with luck and patience, can be picked out from amongst the ranks of their more abundant brethren – look out for their diagnostic white wing-patch, larger overall size and more angular head and bill shape.

Male Teal

Male Teal

Altogether more elegant and rakish, Red-breasted Mergansers are a scarce but regular visitor to our shoreline, rarely seen on freshwater in winter (unlike their close relative the Goosander). Shaggy-crested and with a long, thin, slightly upturned bill, they’re unmistakeable, and perhaps the least ‘duck-like’ of all our winter wildfowl.

Equally hardy and well-suited to the challenges of the North sea in winter, Long-tailed Ducks are one of our most alluring, photogenic and sought-after wildfowl species. With their patchwork brown and white plumage, females are appealing enough; but males, particularly in winter plumage, are a breathtakingly beautiful bird.

Eider

Eider

An ornate mosaic of dove-grey, snow-white and black, with long, pointed tail streamers, fiery red eyes framed by white ‘eyelashes’ and a salmon-pink splash across the bill, they’re almost surreally exotic, an impression further heightened by their relative rarity. However, our coastline always attracts small numbers in each winter, and some birds choose to extend their stay to weeks or even months at favoured locations.

Equally at home on saline and freshwater habitats, Goldeneyes are regular winter visitors in small numbers. Proportionally compact, Goldeneyes have an elliptical, almost oversized head (dark green in winter males, brown in all other plumages), which, along with their short, stubby bill, combines to give them a slightly comedic appearance. (Look out for the male’s head-pumping courtship display, and you can lose the word ‘slightly’.)

Male Goldeneye

Male Goldeneye

In addition, a host of generalist species often use coastal waters either temporarily (for example, when inland waters are frozen) or for more extended periods. Wigeon and Teal are particularly fond of sheltered bays, and may form large flocks at favoured sites; other species which may be found less frequently include Shovelers, Mallards, Pintails and Tufted Ducks.

For the more obsessive among us, it’s the time of year when it’s always worth scrutinising the inshore waves for a much rarer relative of our more familiar seaducks, hidden within their sociable assemblies. With plenty of patience or luck (and usually a combination of both), a King Eider or Surf Scoter might just be out there, waiting to be found on an otherwise uneventful midwinter day……

This article was originally published here by Yorkshire Coast Nature in 2013.

Having looked at waders and wildfowl in parts one and two, Mark James Pearson’s third and final guide to the birds of our coast in winter turns to a disparate band of species holidaying along our shores in the off season, from Guillemots to Gannets and all points in-between.

Gannet

Gannet

Look out from pretty much anywhere along the North Yorkshire coast this winter, and you’re sure to come across a variety of birdlife out on the open waves. Some may be seaducks (as covered in part two), but many will doubtless involve a select band of other species that frequent our bays, harbours and shores during the coldest months.

From Guillemots to Gannets, via grebes, divers, Shags and more – and not forgetting the archetypal seasiders, the gulls – a rich and varied cast are in attendance, and these wintry, often unproductive days of diminishing returns provide the ideal opportunity to seek them out.

Numbers of many of the birds described here vary from year to year, depending on various factors – including weather conditions here and elsewhere, and crucially, the availability and abundance of food. For most of these species, fish play a fundamental role in their presence (and indeed survival) along our coast, and generally speaking, wherever the food is, so too are our birds.

Adult Glaucous Gull

Adult Glaucous Gull

Many share common adaptations for maximising their chances of a successful catch, the most obvious of which is a long, pointed bill. In the case of Shags and Cormorants, these are slightly hooked; in the case of divers, grebes, Gannets and Guillemots, they’re tapered to a sharp tip.

With practice and decent views, most can be identified easily, and there’s nowhere better to get up close and personal with a variety of the species in question than Scarborough harbour. On a good day, Red-throated Diver, Great Crested Grebe, Shag and Cormorant could all be alongside each other and within a few metres of the harbour wall; on a lucky day, there could be a Great Northern or a Black-throated Diver, or a Red-necked or Slavonian Grebe……

Other sheltered coves, bays and favoured stretches of coast can be just as productive – Filey Brigg and Bay, Scarborough’s North and South Bays, Cayton Bay and Long Nab are all well-known havens for ocean-bound winter visitors, and there’s no reason why any other chosen spot shouldn’t turn up the goods.

Cormorant and Shag

Cormorant (of the continental subspecies sinensis)

Cormorant (of the continental subspecies sinensis)

Of all the birds out on the water at this time of year, Cormorant and Shag are the two most likely. These closely related species are a common sight along our coast, and share many similarities – an all-dark (often blackish) plumage, long, thin, hooked bills, a sleek, low carriage in the water, and a powerful, direct flight action.

Cormorants, the larger and bulkier of the two, also have a proportionately larger head and thicker bill than the more delicate, sleeker Shag. Adults of both also sport distinctive crests – think blow-dried for Cormorant, rockabilly for Shag – and they’re often quite approachable, even resting on seawalls and slipways as well as on the open water.

Immature Shag

Immature Shag

Divers

Divers share a similarly low carriage when swimming, as well as long, slim necks and a generally elongated appearance. All three Divers which occur regularly along the Yorkshire coast share dark upperparts (from crown to tail) and pale underparts (from chin to under-tail), giving a distinctive two-toned impression, and all have long, pointed bills.

By far the commonest is the Red-throated Diver, which is very fond of the Yorkshire coast as a winter home, and in good years may appear in some numbers. It’s also the smallest and palest overall, with a beady eye against a pale face and a distinctly upturned bill.

Great Northern Divers are much scarcer, and are an altogether more imposing presence, from their overall size to their thicker, dagger-like bill. They do, however, appear along our coast every winter in variable numbers, and in some years birds may spend the whole season in a favoured bay.

Red-throated Diver

Red-throated Diver

Black-throated Divers are scarcer still, and fit neatly between the two in terms of size and proportions (and hence require great care in picking out). All three divers breed on fresh water lakes in Northern Europe, where their breeding plumages make them some of the most beautfully turned-out species in our part of the world. (Not so much in their winter dress, but you can’t have everything.)

Grebes

Likewise stunning in the breeding season, grebes are similarly a somewhat more subtle proposition in the winter. They also exhibit a two-tone (dark above, pale below) winter plumage, and have long, pointed bills, but the differences generally end there.

The grebes appear much more contrasting (effectively black and white), exacerbated by a noticeably ‘capped’ appearance, apparent even at range; their bills are also proportionately shorter, and their profile is chunkier and less flattened, giving a rounder impression overall.

Although usually best known as a familiar breeding bird of inland lakes, by far the commonest is the Great Crested Grebe. Like Red-throated Divers, good numbers can congregate in favoured locations during some winters; even in quiet years, there’s normally a good scattering along the coast.

Great Crested Grebes

Great Crested Grebes

The two much scarcer grebes, much coveted by coastal birders in the winter, are Red-necked and Slavonian. Both occur in very small numbers each winter, and sometimes find one of our key locations to their liking for a more protracted stay – once again, the bays of Scarborough and Filey (and the former’s harbour) are always worth checking.

Gannet, Guillemot and Razorbill

Three species synonymous with the ‘seabird cities’ of Bempton and Filey reappear in smaller numbers during the winter months. Although the vast majority of ‘our’ Gannets, Guillemots and Razorbills are still many miles offshore during the winter, lesser numbers of all three are usually loitering offshore, with some venturing back onto the cliffs, however temporarily.

All three are also generally easy to identify, but it’s worth becoming familiar with winter plumages of the Guillemots and Razorbills (paler around the face) and the non-adult plumages of Gannets (variable amounts of darker colouration, decreasing with age).

'Blue' Fulmar

‘Blue’ Fulmar

Fulmar

Another cliff-nester with a penchant for hanging around during the off season is the effortlessly graceful Fulmar. With a similar colour scheme (white head and underparts, grey upperparts) they can be superficially confused with gulls, but Fulmars are in reality our pint-size Albatrosses; they belong to the same family and share many similarities, most obviously a stiff-winged, elegant and shearing flight-style, low over the waves or at head-height along the cliff-top.

Arctic populations have an increasing proportion of smoky-plumaged birds, known as Blue Fulmars, and during the winter especially, sea-watchers are alert to these exotic northern fly-bys amongst their paler southern counterparts. All forms share a large, dark eye, accentuated by a darker surround (like slightly smeared mascara), creating a soft expression, even at some distance.

Fulmar

Fulmar

Gulls

Gulls are undoubtedly the most familiar presence at any time of year here on the coast. The term seagull is of course a generic catch-all for any number of coastal gull species, and while several do breed locally, winter is the best time to compare them all side by side. Numbers swell with the arrival of birds from the continent, sensibly spending the coldest months in our milder and more forgiving environment.

Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls

Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls

From the smallest upwards, Black-headed Gulls are dainty, opportunistic seasiders (usually being the first to take us up on our offer of a free lunch); their dark ear-covert smudges – like a pair of ear-phones – are usually the only clue to the presence of the brown hoods of their summer plumage (although look out for odd ones moulting in their chocolate ). Winter sees the arrival of many thousands to our coast, and they can be found at almost any point along it, especially where the pickings are fruitful.

The next size bracket up includes two non-breeding visitors, Common and Mediterranean Gulls. Common Gulls occur pretty much anywhere along the coastal strip, and their dark grey upperparts, black and white wing tips and (in winter) streaked head pattern often lead to confusion with Herring Gulls (see below).

Black-headed (foreground) and Common Gulls

Black-headed (foreground) and Common Gulls

Commons are an altogether smaller and slighter bird however, with a proportionally larger dark eye and more rounded head, giving a distinctly more kindly impression. Now is a perfect time to catch up with them, as numbers reach their peak in the mid to late winter.

Mediterranean Gulls, meanwhile, are a welcome and prized addition to the winter cast. Once a genuine rarity, these delightfully ghostly gulls have become steadily more frequent in our area, in recent years, but are no less thrilling nonetheless; with luck, you could potentially find one anywhere amongst groups of Black-headed and Common Gulls, and flocks of both are always worth scanning for their rarer cousin.

However, for those of a lazier disposition, we’re fortunate to have a handful of wintering Meds which have traditionally taken a liking to Holbeck car park on Scarborough’s south side. Roll down your window and don’t forget your Mother’s Pride.

Adult Mediterranean Gull

Adult Mediterranean Gull

The default large gull on the North Yorks coast (all year round, but even more so in winter) is the Herring Gull. Like all large gulls, they exhibit a confusing array of plumages – from the subtle brown spangling of juveniles to the bold grey and white (with black in the wingtips) of adults, and care needs to be taken to seperate youngsters from similar, but less numerous, Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The latter species is however easy to find in older plumages, with slate-grey upperparts in place of the Herring Gull’s rather paler hue. Contrary to the impression created by the bustling gatherings at our harbours and bays, populations of both are declining alarmingly, partly due to overfishing and the subsequent collapse of the industry in the North Sea.

The largest and most imposing of our winter Larids is the Great Black-backed Gull. Scarce along our coast outside of the coldest months but easy to find presently, Great Black-backs are the sledgehammer in the tool-kit; brutish, quietly omnipotent and even given a wide-berth by otherwise swaggering Herring Gulls.

Immature Glaucous Gull

Immature Glaucous Gull

Finally, the coldest months bring the promise of much rarer visitors from further north. Two species, collectively known as white-wingers (on account of their strikingly pale, bleached-out wing tones, lacking any dark tips) are highly sought by resilient birders in the dead of winter, with each appearing in very small numbers every year in roughly equal measure.

Iceland Gulls (actually from Greenland) are the smaller and slightly less brutish, while Glaucous Gulls (actually from Iceland – welcome to the world of idiosyncratic nomenclature) are a little larger, more angular and aggressive-looking: again, care is needed in seperating the two, and gulls in general are an inherently challenging (but ultimately rewarding) bunch.

Finding either white-winged gull following a fishing boat or loafing on a local beach always quickens the pulse, and the promise of either can be just enough reason to spend a little while longer out on the windswept coast in the dead of winter.

Mark James Pearson

All words and pictures Mark James Pearson 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: