James wrote his bits in italics, Robert has opined on his words in a more stately font
2013 certainly was a pretty crazy year. I don’t think there is a person amongst us who will ever forget where they were when they first learnt of the death of Richard Griffiths. Apart from that major shadow, the year progressed mainly as one might expect. Day followed day in the regular fashion, and, in the same vein, did the weeks. The months were a little more unexpected, with April occurring normally as the fourth month of the year, but then again for two weeks straight after August, presumably thrown off by the cold spring.
Ahh, the cold spring. Do you remember it? That cold, miserable spring. Following our tradition of recent years, Robert and I cancelled yet another planned trip to Dorset. We hope to be able to keep this up until eventually all the species we hope to see have either died out or spread as far north as Yorkshire due to global warming. 50:50 chance eh?
Anyway, in this blog post I invite you to travel with me as I search the deepest, moistest recollections my mind has to offer on the subject of 2013.
After spending many hours wandering around the harbour in December 2012 looking for the Glaucous Gull that was apparently there, suddenly seeing it on patch felt deserved. I remember when I first saw it. Our eyes met, and a jolt went through me. I gasped, and suddenly, in a moment, I saw the whole life of the gull. I stayed with it until the tide came in, and as the water lapped at its feet, it took off. It flew straight over the top of me and met my eye for one last time. I saw then, in that instant, how I would die.
More things happened in February. I can’t be bothered to put in the required effort to find out on which dates everything happened, so I’m going to pretend everything happened on one day. On a bright sunny day in February, Robert and I got up and walked around Thwaite Gardens in Cottingham where we successfully netted a 10-spined stickleback. Score. We also saw some Kingfisher puke and an unseemly sex-act between a goose and a domestic mallard. Straight after this we met up with the East Yorkshire bat group and explored the cellars under Londesborough Estate, where we saw the only East Yorkshire population of Cave Spider. After emerging, blinking, into the wintry air, Robert and I picked up Jess and went to Tophill Low, where we saw a Ring-Necked Duck. This duck, however, was drastically overshadowed by the presence of a hybrid Tufted Duck x Scaup. That’s how sad I am. In the afternoon I drove back up to Scarborough and found a deceased John Dory on the beach. Shortly after that I met up with Stuart and drove to Barmston, where we saw the Kumlien’s Gul that had been hanging around for a while. On the way back to Scarborough, we decided to stop off at Filey where a Grey Phalarope had been seen earlier in the week. We walked along the Brigg and down the side where we saw a few birders with scopes. I eagerly put my bins to my eyes and scanned the bay. I could see nothing. After a couple of minutes I loudly cleared my throat and asked one of the people if they had seen the phalarope. The birder looked at me like I had just asked a really odd question, and then pointed to the phalarope sat on the sea about two metres from where I was stood. It was awesome.
Here follows some descriptions of how close I was able to get to the phalarope:
- It was close enough that I could have spat onto it
- If I had fallen over forward, I would have crushed it with my head
- If I had a pond dipping net I could have scooped it out of the water
- I could hear it respiring. And I don’t mean breathing, I mean the chemical act of converting nutrients into useful energy within a cell.
I didn’t have my camera though, and in a way I’m glad. I don’t want to share that memory with you. This one is just for me.
I honestly can’t remember anything that happened in March.
In April I eventually succeeded in finding the Black Brant amongst the brents at Spurn, after spending many fruitless hours searching previously. I like geese, so this was pretty great. If I remember correctly, Robert, Lucy, Helen and I then went for a short amble down to the point, and then wandered back up. It took about sixteen minutes if I remember correctly. Lucy saw her first lizard, as possibly did Helen. I don’t know, I’m not her biographer. The rest of the day was spent eating ice creams and admiring the nicest Long-Tailed Duck I’ve ever seen at Hornsea Mere.
Other birds seen in April included the Baikal Teal at Flamborough (which was fun) and the Rock Thrush at Spurn, which was spoilt by Robert’s sour attitude, but improved by being able to add Lee Evans to my year list. We also failed to see a Hoopoe. “Would we ever manage to see a Hoopoe?” I remember thinking, sadly.
We also assisted with some bat nest box checks, which brought excellent views of Common and Soprano Pipistrelle, as well as a box full of Noctule bats. The undoubted star, however, was a Brown Long-Eared Bat at Allerthorpe Common. As I admired its shell-like ears, and looked into its beady black eyes, I knew then how I would die.
The bat was the high point of the year. Not whatever tawdry nonsense is mentioned later.
In May an Icterine Warbler was found in Scarborough. I went and waited for what seemed like forever, until it eventually popped into view (I was quite pleased with this actually, as it was I that spotted it). I’m glad I saw it, as now I don’t feel I have to put the effort into seeing another one for a long time.
Also in May, Robert made us drive hundreds of miles to see Dotterel and to make fun of a nerd. Both of which were fun. Long drive though for little return. Apparently dotterel, crane and hobbies aren’t enough for the blinkered and jaded views of some. I personally look at every living thing with the bright-eyed wonder of a new born child.
I spent a day with Katie in North Yorkshire looking for Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, which we eventually found after a couple of hours of searching. I honestly find it difficult to think of another group of animals that brings me as much joy as seeing a new butterfly. I also found a really nice sheep’s skull at the same place. I really recommend that everyone should try and see a Pearl-Bordered Fritillary in 2014. They are stunning little tinkers.
Anything else in May… Oh yes, Robert and I took part in another nest box check at Tophill Low, where we saw several Nathusuiusisus’s’s’ Pipistrelles, as well as a fleeting but satisfactory glimpse of a Water Shrew.
If anyone was to ask me which species of Scoter I have had the best views of, I would be forced to answer ‘Surf Scoter’. In June I saw a Surf Scoter at Filey, and some kind gentlemen let me look through their enormous, gem-encrusted scopes at it for a significant period of time. Really awesome, distinctive looking bird.
Also in June came a highlight not only of the year, but also possibly of my life. I saw a Currant Clearwing. Major props to Lucy for discovering an unrecorded colony of this moth in Hull, and to Lucy’s parents for letting us spend about 30 hours meticulously sifting through every species in their garden, including a wonderful moth-trapping session which turned up my first ever Poplar Kitten. Through a chain of related events, the Currant Clearwing opened doors which allowed us to see a Six-Belted Clearwing less than 24 hours later. I’d always wanted to see a clearwing, and after doing so I realised that everything in my life had no meaning up until that point.
We also saw speckled bush crickets that day. They are better than clearwings, and clearwings are awesome. Look at them. Down there. In that picture. Are you looking? If not, then why can’t you follow basic instructions? They are awesome. Did you look? I bet you did, you automaton.
In June I was privileged to see a tiny colony of Small Blue butterflies in North Yorkshire. This was particularly pleasing as Small Blues died out in Yorkshire in the 1950’s and the nearest colony to Scarborough is probably the one in Cumbria.
The colony is almost certainly introduced, and the site in question is tiny and isolated from any other suitable Small Blue habitat. Some people would likely turn their nose up at an illicit butterfly introduction, but all I will say on the matter is that Small Blue is monotypic within the UK and it has been reintroduced within its historic range (Though in these days of climate change, what does ‘historic range’ really mean any more?). The really regrettable fact is that the site is so small and isolated – the species is unlikely to spread and recolonise vast swathes of Yorkshire – and the small population is likely vulnerable to environmental factors, bad weather, trampling, over-zealous cutting etc.,
Here is a picture of Small Blues being tiny and adorable:
The Marsh Fritillary, or ‘Greasy’ Fritillary, is a species that I have wanted to see for quite some time, being a particularly distinctively attractive example of the fritillary group. I saw the species at Chambers Farm Wood, and this population is another that has been illicitly introduced. My opinions? I don’t mind. It was clear that for a few weeks in June visitor numbers are bolstered by people coming to see and photograph this butterfly, and I can only see that as a good thing. Marsh Fritillaries occur as two subspecies within the British Isles, but I have heard a rumour that this introduction is from ‘foreign stock’, which is less than ideal – though its isolation from native Marsh Fritillaries serves as a barrier to genetic pollution.
It seems that the meadow that they occur on is managed in a way that benefits the butterflies – which came first? The management routine, or the butterflies? – and likely benefits a whole host of other invertebrates. I saw more Mother Shipton moths here than I have at any of the sites I regularly visit in Yorkshire, for example. Picture:
Also in June came two wonderful new snails – Lesser Bulin which I found on a fragment of limestone grassland on an SSSI in North Yorkshire, and Lapidary Snail, which I found amongst the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey on a particularly wonderful day.
One of my few days away from James’ ever watchful gaze, I snuck off to Fen Bog and saw my first wild carnivorous plant. He’s already seen them so I’m imagining he’s going to poo-poo the very idea of even bothering to leave the house.
July is the month we cracked orchids. By that I mean we put some effort into them. A few days in the Pickering area netted us 2 new species (greater butterfly and fragrant) and we also came across hundreds of fly orchids. I also found a gorgeous welsh chafer, which I believe is one of only a smattering of records for Yorkshire.
July brought a special treat in the form of another life bird seen on my patch – Roseate Tern. Terns are, without question, wonderful birds, and seeing a new one was pretty darn wonderful. Bless them.
Also on the bird front, I attended a Storm Petrel ringing session at Burniston and managed to see three birds, and got to smell them as well. The smell of a Storm Petrel is hard to describe in words, sort of dusty, and warm. However, a side effect of smelling a Storm Petrel is that you get a vision of how your life will end. I saw my own death that night.
I saw a White-Letter Hairstreak in Hull, which was pretty special. I wasn’t actually feeling that hopeful, until suddenly I just caught one fluttering through the binoculars. The difficult part was trying to explain to Robert where to look to be able to see it. “Do you see that dead leaf? Well, it’s sort of up and left from the dead leaf. Like a foot above it, and two feet left. Maybe three feet. Oh, it’s walked out of sight.”
My sister came to visit me in Scarborough, and in between watching all of the Saw films, we found the time to pop to Filey to see Minke whales in the bay. Biggest animals I have ever seen, pretty amazing. Probably my mammal highlight of the year.
I can’t think of anything that happened in August.
In September Robert and I took a drive to Paull for a long overdue appointment with some Clouded Yellows. I remember being concerned that it might be difficult to distinguish a Clouded Yellow in flight from a Brimstone or a particularly strongly-coloured white. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself how stupid I was. And ugly. A Clouded Yellow in flight is the most yellow thing you have ever seen. Imagine margarine filled with chemicals, and it was even more yellow than that. I think we saw at least six or so at Paull, but there could easily have been twice that number.
One merry morning we released some grass snakes. As they scuttled into the undergrowth, one turned and fixed my stare. In that moment I saw how James would die.
October was pretty crazy. I spent a couple of days in Buckinghamshire at the behest of Lucy, and whilst in the area Robert and I planned an elaborate hustle-type scheme to gain access to a national trust property so we could look at some snails. If I remember correctly, I tricked a security guard into thinking he had a role in a film that I was producing, so he left work early to attend the casting call. He was replaced with a less experienced security guard who had no qualms in letting Robert through the gate dressed as a chef, pushing an enormous cake on a trolley. As soon as we got inside, Robert pulled off his fake rubber face, and I burst out of the cake. Then we looked at some snails. I might have made some of this up. They were Cliveden Snails, by the way.
The next day, on the drive back to Yorkshire, we stopped off in Bedfordshire to view an introduced colony of Firebugs. We found a single adult individual almost immediately, and a reasonable number of nymphs inside the nearby abandoned greenhouses. I remember looking around the area and thinking “wouldn’t it be awful to live somewhere like this”.
This trip turned into something of an introduced species free-for-all. The full details of which can be read here.
In October I also attended a variety of job interviews, each more depressing and confusing than the last. One of these was in the Scottish highlands, which was certainly an interesting drive. On the way I was able to stop off at St Abbs head and see a Sardinian Warbler, which is probably the nicest looking warbler I have ever seen (sorry Dartford, you come a close second). I arrived at St Abbs quite early in the day and found a few others birders sitting in the lee of a stone wall. I sat with them, and found myself engaged in conversation with an elderly gentleman from Leicestershire, who seemed to have an inordinate amount of teeth and the ability to produce an almost infinite quantity of jam sandwiches from his pockets. We waited. After about an hour with nothing being seen, one of the birders piped up and asked if anyone would mind if he played the call to see if the bird would respond. We all agreed that it was probably worth a try. He played the call. Within moments the Sardinian Warbler was sat about a metre away on some gorse. It was so close that I could see every detail without binoculars. With binoculars, you could see straight into the depths of its deep , red eye. In that moment, I saw how I would die.
After leaving St Abbs I carried on north, stopping off to look at a drake Blue-Winged Teal which really was a lovely duck. If someone came up to me in the street and offered me one, I’d accept it. Lovely. I also saw a Ruddy Duck on a nearby Loch. I wonder when it’ll be the last year I see one of them?
I saw a Daurian Shrike at Flamborough, my fourth shrike species. I could happily watch shrikes forever. Apparently the Daurian Shrike is also known as the ‘Bush-Murderer’, ‘Executioner Sentry-bird’, ‘Shiv-beak’ and ‘Sandy Shank-bill’. All of those names are made up.
I attended yet another job interview, this time in Bedfordshire. Surprisingly, I got the job. This necessitated several trips to be made between Yorkshire and Bedfordshire. On one of these trips I decided to stop off in Nottinghamshire to try and see a Hoopoe. I can’t really be bothered to write the full story down, and you’re probably getting tired of reading this by now. Gosh, I’ve written… 2,749 words. That’s too many. Anyway, long story short, there were several birders looking for the Hoopoe for a few hours. No sign of it, people thought it must have left. I was getting ready to give in myself, but I just thought I’d try walking down one last path before I did. As I did so, I almost stepped on a Hoopoe. Honestly, I was walking through some longer grass and it came up from the grass less than a metre ahead of me. My heart nearly stopped, and in that moment I saw my own death. The Hoopoe landed a few metres down the path, and I spent about half an hour watching it feed and erect its crest and do other such Hoopoe-y things. All the time I kept telling myself that I should probably alert some other birders, but I found it impossible to leave it. Eventually another birder came down the path, and I was able to tell them, and they were able to tell everyone else.
Later that same day, after running various errands in Bedfordshire, I stopped off once again at the abandoned greenhouses where I had seen the firebugs earlier in the month. This time there were a lot more of the bugs visible, as well as a Muntjac ambling through the abandoned greenhouses. I decided to follow it, and in doing so I disturbed a bird from the roof beams, which flew the length of the greenhouse before flying into a window and knocking itself out. It was a Little Owl, and I was able to spend the next hour holding it until it got its wits together enough to fly off. It was awesome.
Whilst I was in Bedfordshire, news came through of a Siberian Stonechat on my patch in Scarborough. Luckily it hung around a few days, long enough for me to get back to Scarborough and go see it in between packing up all my stuff. My third life-bird seen on my patch in 2013. Pretty good.
In November I saw the Rosefinch at Carnaby, near Bridlington. I got very good views of it, though I’d love to see one in summer plumage one day. I remember thinking as I drove away that this would likely be the last bird I saw in Yorkshire for quite some time. By the middle of November, I had moved to my new place in Bedfordshire.
However, about two weeks after moving to Bedfordshire, I drove back up to Yorkshire for my sister’s birthday, which gave me enough time to see the Serin at Flamborough. A lovely bird, and the fact that we had to spend an hour looking and waiting for it made it seem all the more special when we finally got to see it. As we drove away, I remember thinking it would likely be the last new bird I saw in Yorkshire for quite some time.
I saw my 800th UK species. It was this marvelous Heather Ladybird found at James’ place of business. He had already thrown a business card and asked it to “pow-wow” over an espresso before I realised it was something new.
One weekend in December, after I got my first payment from work, I decided to drive back up to Yorkshire. This decision had nothing to with the fact that if I went slightly out of my way I could have a chance at seeing Parrot Crossbills in Nottinghamshire, and Two-Barred Crossbills in South Yorkshire. Oh yeah it did lol.
I arrived at Budby at dawn, and immediately met up with a few other birders that were walking onto the common where the Parrot Crossbills had been seen the day before. There must have been about 35 birders present, all wandering around quite a large area. No-one had seen anything yet. I decided to stand in the middle of the common, near to a group of birders who were waiting by a puddle in the hope that the parrots would come and drink. I had spent the night before listening to the difference between Common Crossbill and Parrot Crossbill, so I decided to sit on a fence with my eyes closed and simply listen. After about ten minutes I heard a noise. It sounded like crossbills – but also, not quite like crossbills… “I can hear crossbills” I announced to the other birders present. No one seemed to hear me, except a birder that looked like an evil Simon Pegg. He listened as well. “Yeah” he said, “crossbills”. The sounds were getting nearer, and it was clear that the call was noticeably different from Common Crossbill. Suddenly a flock of Parrot Crossbills swooped into a nearby tree. We got fantastic views and I was really delighted at how noticeably different they sounded and looked.
Triumphant, I moved onto South Yorkshire, where within an hour I saw the Two-Barred Crossbills. If forced to choose, I’d say that Two-Barred Crossbills look better than Parrot Crossbills. In fact, I’d say that even if I wasn’t forced to choose. They look very, very good. I was also able to add Brett Richards to my year list. I thought I was going to miss him this year. As I was getting up to leave, someone mentioned the Parrot Crossbills in Nottinghamshire. I chipped in saying that they’d been showing very well that morning. Brett Richards turned his gaze on me and asked me where abouts they were. As I stammered out some rough directions, I looked into those eyes, sunk in his grizzled face, and in that instant I knew how I was going to die. As I drove away from Broomhead reservoir, I thought to myself that they would likely be the last birds I saw in Yorkshire for quite some time.
During my last week of work before Christmas, it became apparent that the Ivory Gull in East Yorkshire was hanging around. I shook my head sadly, for I no longer lived in Yorkshire. Luckily it hung around until I finished work for Christmas, and I was able to go and see with Robert and Jenna. It was great. Probably the best gull I’ve seen? Err… Yeah. Ivory at the top, then Iceland (the long-stayer in Scarborough harbour 2010-2011), then Glaucous, then Sabine’s, then Kumlien’s, then Kittiwake, then Mediterranean, then Great Black-Backed, then Lesser Black-Backed, then Herring, then Black Headed, then Yellow-Legged, then, at the very bottom, Caspian.
After seeing the Ivory Gull we went to North Cave and saw a Green-Winged Teal. I don’t know why. I’d seen one before. I didn’t need to put myself through that again. Ha ha! I jest. It was lovely. I really do fancy seeing a hybrid Common Teal x Green-Winged though.
After Christmas we drove up to Filey and showed Jess her first Harbour Porpoise. We also saw the largest flock of Snow Bunting I’ve ever seen – there must have been about 60 birds – which beats out the second largest flock I’ve seen in Yorkshire by about 59 birds. Then we saw some very distant Velvet Scoters. I remember thinking, as I drove back to Bedfordshire the other day, that they would likely be the last new bird I saw in Yorkshire for quite some time.
So yeah, that was 2013. I’ve probably forgotten to write several other great things down that happened. In fact here are a couple of pictures that I didn’t manage to mention earlier:
Dark Bordered Beauty:
Here’s hoping 2014 isn’t a massive, underwhelming let-down.
Finally, I want everyone who reads this to think of the happy times they had with Richard Griffiths. You’ll sleep forever in our hearts, you avuncular cherub you.
P.S While not wanting to ruin the surprise, I can say that James’ death will not include a bathtub like so many of us predicted.