Friday, 27 April 2012

Blenheim Palace

We’ve recently put a bit in the press as part of the Hempholme Project, so for the full story see on. Whilst we were finishing off the tree felling works our contractors discovered this innocuous looking lump of aluminium:

We’re used to odd bits of debris at Tophill – usually concrete in the bottom of every post hole we dig. Many moons ago a saxon spear head was found in the Hempholme area which had likely been dredged out of the river and luckily we’ve yet to hear a metallic thud of one of the Luftwaffe incendiaries reportedly dropped after a raid on Driffield river head was intercepted, and are now in the bottom of South Marsh East somewhere according to period observers.

In this case the aluminium seemed a very high quality being crumpled, but still not broken, yet corroded up. It gave the impression of being aircraft spec alloy. The Halifax which crashed at Decoy farm ½ a mile away is well known (see here).

However a quick search on the net revealed details of Bristol Blenheim Mk1 night trainer K7091, piloted by 25 year old Flight Sergeant Angus McBean. The aircraft was with 2 Operational Training Unit (Coastal) based a few miles from Tophill at Catfoss aerodrome. Apparently the aircraft is said to have lost sight of the aerodrome lighting and hit the ground next to the river Hull at Hempholme, not far from Standingholme Farm at 1.15am on the 6th of May 1942. For those in the know this is either in our field at Tophill or the JSR’s field next door (property of the short-eared owls this winter) and in this 1946 aerial photo:

Flt Sgt McBean is now buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard in his native Durham and his grave can be seen on the war graves site here, and a photograph of K7091 (taken some years earlier in 1937) is viewable on this aviation forum here.

To try and learn more we queried the RAF, RAF museum and local press and records offices which turned up no further information except confirmation. The Ministry of Defence Air Historical Branch replied;

  "Our records confirm that Sgt A McBean was the pilot of Blenheim K7091 when it crashed at about 0115 hours on the 6 May 1942. Sgt McBean was based at No.2 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit at RAF Catfoss and was carrying out training in night time local circuits and landings when the accident occurred...The crash site is recorded as Standingholme Farm, Watton Farm (Undoubtedly a confusion with Watton Carrs - the term for all the lowland from Tophill back to the A164 at Watton Village), E Yorks. Map reference 505693. World War 2 maps differ from modern Ordnance Survey map references; the Imperial War Museum holds World War 2 era military maps. There are no further details on the crash site in our records or any photographs of the crash site...Finally, it is possible that some mention of the accident is made in the Operational Records Books (ORBs) of No.2 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit...The ORBs of RAF units from this period are no longer held by the Ministry of Defence but have been deposited, in accordance with the Public Records Act, at The National Archives at Kew in London."

Unfortunately we at the reserve can find no reference in the catalogue to ORB's for this date range. We then invited East Yorkshire Metal Detectorist Society to make a visit and see if we could find any further debris. The aircraft was reportedly recovered but we may expect some more shrapnel. The team undertook a good search but found nothing definitive - thanks to Chris Hannard for these pictures:

Meanwhile we contacted the Blenheim Society – a charity currently restoring a Mk1 Blenheim similar to that which crashed. Many thanks to Tony Lowe and Engineer ‘Smudge’ Smith who had a look at the original alloy. As they say it is impossible to say whether it is a Blenheim without a serial number, but certainly looks like aircraft wreckage. They have suggested it has the potential of a hydraulic cylinder based behind the engine firewall as below (thanks to Tony for these pictures):

So is it a Blenheim? We can’t definitively say. However the nice aspect is we had all learnt about an airman who had been but a name on memorial for the last 70 years. Given that we have just completed the Hempholme project at Tophill it seemed very fitting to name the new bird hide in honour of Flt Sgt Angus McBean – especially as it will be exactly 70 years to the day next Sunday the 6th.

As such we’ll be having a small naming ceremony that day at 3pm to which all are invited. Through the afternoon we will be offering drinks and refreshments at the hide, with chance to go on a series of guided walks with myself and botanist Alan Marshall looking at the developing plant communities.

Entry will be free for the day and on this occasion only there will be vehicle access to the top of the reservoir. Of interest too will be a live search and display by East Yorkshire Metal Detectorist Society by kind permission of JSR Farms to see if we can find any more information.

Finally we’ve made some enquiries on surviving relatives of Flt Sgt McBean. Unfortunately the RAF keep no records of next of kin as far back as this. We’ve made some enquiries in the North East press so it would be really nice to find some more out about the man himself. A plaque is to be mounted on the hide and a small display cabinet inside will retell the tale for future generations. If you have any information on the pilot or the aircraft please feel free to contact me on the usual Tophill e-mail or phone on our contacts page above.

It seems quite fitting that where one airman met his end we have hopefully created a habitat that will support avian aviators for many years to come.

Inundation weather

If it hasn’t been swifts and hirundines then it’s been rainfall over the last two days. This impressive rainbow was over Hempholme village in amongst the lightning strikes yesterday:
However between then and 9am this morning the level in the new meadow has increased by four inches – creating many new hollows and pools in amongst the existing scrapes:
The river too was transformed. Just over three weeks ago you could have run the flow over this weir through an eight inch pipe – possibly not today:
The river was as full below the lock as it was upstream:
Hopefully this hasn’t damaged the avocets which were seen nest building yesterday morning but no sign today. Their island stayed above water but only just. This black tailed godwit in full breeding plumage there today though was nice however:
A common tern was also on show again in the area again today, and a passing whimbrel on Watton and greenshank on South Marsh West was a year first. The first lesser and common whitethroats were also calling today. Thanks to Tony Robinson for these of blackcaps which are still obvious around site:
Linnet too are a familiar face around the back-to-back hides:
The two pintail are reliably on the marsh at the moment too – Tony Robinson:
A wet night brought out the barn owl in daylight and also the short eared owl hunting flooded out voles no doubt in Hempholme Meadow:
Otherwise c.40 swifts was a good count over D res and a common sandpiper on the wall. Finally the group who rung black headed gull 2X18 readily visible on South Marsh East at the moment are keen to know what sex it is (it is very difficult to establish when rung as a chick). This can tell them about the different dispersal in sexes. To determine this you can help by logging whether it is male or female during its relationships on the island. If you are still not sure if you can log in the sightings book wether it was on top or bottom that should suffice!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A swift arrival

An April swift is a fine thing and one on the 25th is welcome indeed. As Michael Flowers put it best – he’d had swift before sand martin this year:
At least two were hunting D res; their arrival no doubt brought by the swirling low pressure bringing in winds from Europe. At last the hirundines also arrived in number – a tantalising glimpse outside the sand martin colony – right family group at any rate!:
There were 70 swallows over the northern site alone today. Hopefully a genuine sand martin will take to either of the two colonies now at Tophill:
We also had 30 house martins today too. The other anticipated arrival was yellow wagtail – Michael’s course picking up three on the southern reserve this afternoon. For more details and photos see his blog as ever here. The avocets eluded the visitors today – perhaps to the taste of some (see Martin’s post here!), however we will welcome them and see what happens. The problem now is trying to prevent them being flooded out (after spending all winter trying to gather water!). Thanks to HVWG for this shot of them in action:
And also courtesy of Brian Spence:
Brian also got some more inhabitants including barn owl:
Greylags now spread around the site:
Cock pheasant:
Willow warbler:
And the short eared owls still showing both at Hempholme and Wilfholme at present:
Both marsh and hen harrier (the latter heading north as one would expect) in the last couple of days have also been welcome. Also reticent to leave were a siskin on Richard Sears’s feeders and 3 goldeneye on D res today in no apparent hurry:
Thanks to Roy Vincent too for this blackcap:
And HVWG for these tufties:
However the ruff are new and exotic looking still – the same 8 individuals for two weeks – thanks to Roy Vincent for these great flight shots:
Their limelight was stolen briefly this morning by this 1st summer mediterranean gull, though which had disappeared by the afternoon:
With black headed gull for comparison (BH left Med right):
Unfortunately I was too busy snapping and only noticed when I got home we have another darvic ringed black headed gull present – one to look out for if you have a scope:
The final arrival is common tern – thanks to Dave Ruffles for this one on O res Gantry:
And this one courtesy of Michael Flowers yesterday:
There is some conjecture surrounding last week’s tern now with evidence pointing towards a passing arctic instead. Also just moving through was this green sandpiper courtesy of Dave Ruffles feeding on the new Hempholme scrape:
Also worth mentioning this week are common sandpiper on Watton NR, cuckoo northern site, pintail South Marsh East with sedge and reed warbler, kingfisher near the lock and tawny owl in the car park.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A spot of ruff weather

You could be forgiven for missing it – but on Thursday summer truly arrived. A south easterly spin on the low pressure brought in a flush of species. Common tern was a first for the year over the O reservoir but didn’t stop. Reed and sedge warbler are now resident back on South Marsh West, with plenty of blackcaps, chiffchaff (hvwg):
And willow warbler (hvwg):
Blue tit (hvwg):
The black headed gull colony continues to grow year on year despite the ominous clouds:
With these two full of the joys of spring yesterday:
And 2X18 has secured a prime spot on the equivalent of Park Lane – the breeze block. For some reason these ‘objects’ we put on as cover for tern chicks fleeing harriers are a source of endless fascination for the gulls:
We’ve also seen quite a good wader passage. The avocets continue to stay and have been seen mating on the bare island near the back to back hides where this lapwing resides:
We’ll see whether they stay – they often seem to disappear but could potentially be feeding on the new scrapes on the river Hull berm? Alan amongst others has pictures on the Flickr page. Also using the marsh have been the same 8 ruff for the last week with a dunlin yesterday (left of shot):
It’s nice to see them in breeding plumage and this flame-haired individual challenging the rest of its group has been a real highlight:
There are more good pics on Michael Flowers’s blog here. Andy Nunn also has a whimbrel on Watton last night – a first for the year and one of likely only handful of sightings each year. The rest of the week has also seen peregrine over O res and red kite in the area; suggesting that both these once rare species are becoming ever more common as breeders now. Marsh harriers we often expect and again have been showing, with a lot of Kestrel activity this year – thanks to Andew Blagden for this one:
Plenty of passage swallows and house martins. Still lingering from winter are the short eared owls on Standingholme fields – to go any time now but still giving photo ops as per Flickr. We have had up to 8 little grebe reported on South Marsh East (hvwg):
I am not sure of the mutual benefits of this, but there was clearly some benefit to both the wigeon and little grebe in this hunting which took place for 10 minutes or more:
Though the wigeon was clearly dominant:
The gadwall too also got itself a little grebe to assist too:
What to expect in coming days? yellow wagtail are already being reported at Spurn - but the real prize at Tophill will be upland migrants; wheatear, chats, redstarts and even a ring ouzel could be a possibility. The barren meadow at Hempholme could be good for all of these. Thanks to David Marritt for this picture of a deceased (what I think from the picture but difficult to scale) pygmy shrew on the path through D res. Possibly left by a fox or stoat which don't seem to favour them - apparently due to the scent glands on their flanks:
When pond dipping with the Wildlife Explorers yesterday in the small pools on the way to North Marsh (near the kingfisher signs), we observed the rare water shrew. Judging by its reluctance to leave the area we suspect it could have had young. If someone wants a real photographic challenge the water shrew could be a good one as they are very seldom encountered. Stay on the path and wait quietly and patiently and you may just get lucky... However the big news was Martin's finding of the earliest ever Yorkshire large red damselfly last Saturday - all the details on his blog. If you want to get into odonata yourself this summer then make sure you check out Paul Ashton's excellent site here.