Thursday, 15 March 2018

Intertidal surveys

Foulney, Roa and Walney Islands
Sometimes in amongst a plethora of mundane surveys which are bread and butter in the life of the ecologist, I hit the jackpot and something special happens. A full two weeks surveying estuarine birds not only from the ground, but also from the air certainly falls into the special category. It may seem boring and repetitive at times and if I wasn't being paid to do it, I certainly wouldn't chose to sit in the same spot for two weeks through all weathers in the middle of winter to observe the movements of birds on an  estuary. However, given that I am here, it's a great opportunity to learn so much about the way in which the estuary works. and to watch the interaction of the birds with each other and with the tides.

Fortunately my day up in the helicopter coincided with the nicest day of the two weeks!

South Walney Nature Reserve
The views of Walney Island are just stunning from the air.

One of the first sandbanks to be exposed after high tide was right alongside my vantage point and the oystercatchers were always quick to exploit its wealth of feeding opportunities, often flying in excitedly, filling the air with their chattering calls and landing even whilst it was still covered in shallow water. As soon as a little more mud was exposed, the equally excitable and noisy wigeon which had been feeding on the saltmarsh over high tide, swam up the gully to the sandbank to join in the feeding frenzy.

Back to the mundane!

It's not all fun and games though, in fact it very rarely is! I've called this photo "The insanity of the ecologist". This is what nine days sitting in the same spot counting the same birds eight hours a day does to you. Watching the tide come in and the tide go out, wondering if perhaps this time will be different, but it never is. It doesn't matter if the sun is shining or the rain is pouring or the fog casts a dark blanket over the estuary, still I sit here and watch and wait and hope. Tonight I'll be back in the same room at the same hotel (room 101 would you believe) with 30 minutes free internet and basic telly, tomorrow I'll renew my lonely vigil. Yes it's true, I really do get paid to do my hobby. Still, good science is often repetitive and boring they say so I suppose this must be good science.

However sometimes I do manage to spot a few decent birds, including this cracking male wheatear from my survey position. Turns out it's my second earliest ever, if we ignore the overwintering bird at Burton Marsh on the Dee estuary from 2013/14. Also from my survey position, on the very last day and after two weeks of predicting a white winged gull with no success, I finally saw a 2nd winter Iceland gull fly up the channel towards me, and then head away inland over the golf course.

Just down the road from my hotel, this black brant was with a gorgeous flock of 80+ pale-bellied brents and a single dark-bellied brent in Walney Channel just south of Jubilee bridge. It's undoubtedly the same bird which I saw at Roa Island in 2014.

Looking south down Walney channel on a grey day, I must admit, my impression of Barrow and Walney has certainly improved dramatically over the past two weeks. I used to think it was a grim industrial necessity on the fringes of Cumbria, but actually it's scenically a pretty decent place in its own right. If Walney Island was on the east coast it would be a birding mecca.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Iceland Gull, Warrington town centre

There's been an adult Iceland gull knocking around Warrington town centre for a few winters now, usually around the college and I've had a few failed attempts myself to see it. John Tymon saw it on Thursday morning on Tescos car park, and again early this morning, so I decided to have another go at seeing it. I saw it flying almost as soon as I arrived, but it landed on the flat roof of Linde, opposite the Premier Inn on the A49 and was completely out of sight. I hung around for a while and eventually it flew across the road and landed in full view on the roof of Warrington Business School, where it stayed for about 10 minutes before flying back to Linde.  Unfortunately when it's on Linde roof, you wouldn't even know that there is a bird there let alone what species it is, it's just completely out of view.

As often seems to be the case at this time of year, all of my photos seem to be dull and grey, and of gulls or other black and white birds! Stick with it, all will change soon.......

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Beauty in the beast at Pennington Flash

So the "Beast from the East" arrived today and what a beautiful and dramatic day it was.  Bitterly cold for most of the day with an easterly wind which cut right through you, but wonderful squally snow showers and bright blue sunshine made it the best day of the year so far.

We might still be in the grip of winter but Mediterranean birds abounded at the flash today, the highlight being two pristine adult Mediterranean gulls which didn't seem to care about the cold and were displaying right outside Horrock's hide, with a third adult on the spit. Another species of gull more at home in the Mediterranean, the regular 3rd winter yellow-legged gull still harasses the coots for mussels, whilst three little egrets flew over the spit which held two snipe and four oystercatchers. Male goldeneye were displaying on the flash and several goosander drifted past.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Mediterranean Gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, Leigh

There's been a cracking adult Mediterranean gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal  for the past two weeks, between Leigh bridge and the Atherleigh way. This is undoubtedly one of the birds which roosts at Pennington Flash, but it shows a bit better here!

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Overdosing on the hooded crow in Ashton

A few more photos of the hooded crow in Ashton-in-Makerfield. In bright sunlight such as today the pale grey in its plumage looks almost silvery, in fact it's a really smart bird.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Glaucous gull, Hollingworth Lake

For the past week or two there has been a very obliging juvenile glaucous gull at Hollingworth Lake, near Rochdale in Greater Manchester. I've put off going to see it for a number of reasons, not least because I don't like the place and the traffic can be very bad in that area, but also because I didn't really want to see the bird surrounded by the massed ranks of photographers no doubt trying to feed it meal worms or fish and chips or some such thing. However having heard one or two encouraging and reassuring reports, today I finally succumbed, and when Elaine announced that she'd liked to go for a walk, I suggested Hollingworth Lake.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

A week at the roost 27th January - 2nd February 2018

Caspian gull - © John Tymon

Another week at the Pennington Flash gull roost and not much has changed except that gull numbers have gone down considerably, especially the larger gulls. The Caspian gull is still around, seen on four out of seven nights and the Mediterranean gull was seen most nights. The Iceland gull has become very intermittent, only seen on three nights this week and even the yellow-legged gull has become unreliable and a bit more difficult.

When the Caspian gull does appear it can come in quite close and sometimes relatively early, as can be seen from John Tymons excellent photos here. Although at a distance its bill still seems quite dark, in fact at close range it now has a distinctly pink base.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Hooded crow, Ashton-in-Makerfield

This morning I called in for another look at the hooded crow at Ashton-in-Makerfield. It was my first visit to the site since last Wednesday when I had a run in with a photographer which left me a bit disillusioned and depressed. I didn't even leave my car today, I simply pulled up at the side of the grass, with the sun behind me, put the window down and waited. After a few minutes the bird duly obliged and landed just a few metres from my car and I was able to take a few photos without chasing it or causing any disturbance. Eventually it was inevitably flushed by a photographer who decided to walk straight across the grass towards it, at which point the bird flew up into the trees and I left. No doubt this chap got some half silhouetted shots of a bird looking down from a tree, appearing harassed and afraid, which he's probably filed away under the heading wildlife photographs. Meanwhile, I'll have to content myself with these photos of the bird on the ground, looking relaxed and natural.

Friday, 26 January 2018

A week at the roost 20th - 26th January 2018

Caspian Gull, 2nd winter. 
It might not be the largest roost in the area, but the Pennington Flash gull roost certainly keeps delivering at the moment, though nothing is ever certain. Over the past seven days an amazing 11 species of gull have been present at one time or another, with the 2nd winter Caspian gull the star attraction and drawing the crowds from far and wide.

The Caspian gull has been seen in the roost on four out of the past seven days, and other regular scarcities being recorded are 2nd winter Iceland gull on six out of seven, 3rd winter yellow-legged gull on four out of seven and adult Mediterranean gull on five out of seven.  Two other species have been new into the roost this week and have been single day birds, an adult little gull on Saturday and a 2nd winter kittiwake on Thursday, the latter being a new species at the Flash for me. What's not clear is where the gulls roost when they are not roosting at the Flash.

It's not just about the gulls though, distantly a small starling murmuration of a thousand or two birds is often over Ramsdales reedbed, whilst the usual 800 - 1000 jackdaws swirl around over the gulls. All in all, it's a great experience!

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Hooded Crow, a Manchester county mega

Just last week I returned from Cyprus where hooded crows were common town birds, and I barely looked twice at them, so that's my excuse for almost walking past one today without it even registering what it was!

I'd got Elaine to drop me off at the layby near Haydock Island on her way to work. My plan was to walk north up the A49 past the entrance to Haydock Park Race course and then follow a footpath from Heath road down to Sandy Lane and make my way home through Golborne. The reason for doing this was to try to see a reported flock of around 100 brambling which had been seen in that area.

Suddenly as I walked down Heath Road I became aware that I was walking past a hooded crow! It was just there, on the grass about 10m away from me. I really couldn't believe it. There had been one near Haydock Island before Christmas and this was undoubtedly it, but the good news was, this former St Helens mega was now in Greater Manchester!

The light was poor and I fired off a few poor photos and then put the news out, sparking a mini twitch! It turns out that although there are a few records of hooded crow in Greater Manchester, they are from so long ago that virtually every Greater Manchester lister needs it for their list! I didn't see any sign of the brambling.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

A strange gull roost

Iceland gull, 2nd winter

A strange gull roost at Pennington Flash this afternoon, for a long time there seemed to be more birders than birds, with 10 scopes looking out over the flash where the only birds present were a handful of very distant large gulls in Ramsdales and 50 or so black-headed gulls coming to bread even more distantly on the car park.

Then at 16:25, and with the centre of the flash still flat calm and devoid of gulls, the fog rolled in and we could see even less and with sunset at 16:28, the afternoon seemed to be over. Miraculously though after a 5 minute white out the fog lifted, and though there were still very few birds compared to some roosts, a flock of a few hundred black-headed gulls and perhaps a couple of hundred large gulls was revealed quite close to us.

Scanning through the flock in what little daylight remained we managed to pick out the 2nd winter Iceland gull, 3rd winter yellow-legged gull, adult Mediterranean gull and best of all my first ever roosting adult winter little gull. Of course I have seen this species at the flash before, usually on early spring passage in March or April, but I've never actually managed to see one in the roost before so a decent night all round. No sign of the now regular Caspian gull, but it may well still be around. Three different species of white winged gull in the same roost, it's a pity that a glaucous gull didn't turn up to complete the set. Surely that really would have been a Pennington Flash record!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Heuglin's Gull, Larnaca, Cyprus

One of the reasons I like to visit Cyprus in the winter is to see perhaps the most enigmatic of all Western Palearctic gulls Heuglin's gull Larus heuglini, also sometimes called Western Siberian or Tundra gull.  There is some argument as to whether or not this bird warrants separate species status or if it is simply another race of lesser black back gull, but whichever way, it's a cracking bird.

Over the past few days I've seen several, all either adults or 3rd winters and I've noticed how variable they can be in both mantle colour and size. I've mentioned previously that 3rd winters always seem to look darker to me, close to Baltic Gull L.f. fuscus, whereas adults look paler more like our western European lesser black-back L.f. graellsii. Apart from some very distant birds at Mandria I've only ever seen quite small looking Heuglin's before yesterday. However I found this adult on the waste water reservoirs at Larnaca yesterday, and it's a monster. Notice the size compared to the nearby Caspians. In the flight photos you can also see the late moult typical of the species. P10 is virtually non-existant and P9 is very small and seems to be just coming through whilst the secondaries are very tatty looking and clearly in the process of moulting. Sorry about the poor quality of the photos, they were taken on my phone, through my telescope using a homemade adapter and on 60x maginification, then cropped. To be honest it's a miracle that they are as good as they are, especially the flight photos.

Caspian Gulls, Larnaca, Cyprus

Living in North West England, Caspian gull is still quite a rarity in my area and I don't get to see very many, so visiting a place like Cyprus where there are lots in winter is a good way to try to get to grips with them. At Larnaca in particular they were very common during my stay there this week, far outnumbering all other big gulls even yellow-legged. The area around Larnaca waste water treatment works and the salt lake at Yialos held at least 300 birds, and there were other smaller flocks at Larnaca salt lake and elsewhere.

Caspian gull is often said to have a distinct jizz, but unless you see a lot of them it's hard to get to grips with this feature. By the end of this short birding break I was at least able to have an appreciation of the jizz of a Caspian, even if it still won't necessarily be obvious in the gull roost at Pennington Flash.

One of the features I noticed of birds in flight was the amazing similarity in jizz to pomarine skua, you can even see this in the photo of the adult above, it's a great big barrel chested bird.

Bits and pieces from around Larnaca, Cyprus

When I'm abroad in sunnier climes, I love seeing species which I wouldn't necessarily expect to see in the Mediterranean but which are common or frequent visitors to the UK.  I suspect that the majority of birders who visit Cyprus don't go for the European white-fronted geese, yet here are five of them feeding on fields near Larnaca airport and occasionally flying onto the water treatment reservoirs.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Lady's Mile and Akrotiri

If you were to ask me my favourite birding site in the whole of Cyprus I would say Lady's Mile on the Akrotiri peninsular, and this is one of the main the reasons why, an adult Armenian gull in winter plumage. What a bird, one of the most beautiful of all of the gulls and this species alone makes winter my favourite season to visit Cyprus. Lady's Mile is a great place to see Armenian gull, and the Oasis Fish Restaurant  right on the pebble beach is an ideal place to see them from. Today there were about 30 Armenian gulls on the water in front of the restaurant, along with a nice selection of Caspian, yellow-legged, slender-billed and black-headed. I've seen some great views of some very special birds today, but this bird was the highlight.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gull watching at Larnaka

A good day in Cyprus today, I spent it around Larnaca going back and forth between the water treatment reservoirs near the airport, the salt lake and Oroklini Lake. I'm here specifically to look for gulls and especially Great black-headed or Pallas's gull, a species which I have never seen before. I've also never been to Larnaca before, but this is the best place in Cyprus to see Great black-headed and the middle of January is the best time of year. That said, there's usually only one or two records every year and they are sometimes only present for a few minutes before moving on, so it's at best a longshot. However if you stay at home and don't try then you definitely won't see one, so here I am.

No sign of great black-headed gull today, but at least 4 Heuglin's (Siberian) gulls (2 ads, 2 3cy and a possible 1cy), about 300 Caspian, many yellow-legged and several Armenian. They don't seem as easy to get close to here as they are at Lady's Mile near Limassol, but still not too bad when compared to the gull roost at Pennington Flash! Also the gull flocks seem to be dominated by Caspian here, whereas in previous winters I've seen more Armenian at Lady's Mile and just a few Caspian. I'm heading for Lady's Mile tomorrow so it will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.

Obviously I'm also seeing plenty of other birds, notably around 500 greater flamingos, 11 ferruginous ducks, a few laughing doves, loads of Kentish plover, a single flock of 61 black-necked grebes (!), red-crested pochards, a good variety of waders and plenty of chiffchaffs of the race brevirostris. The remarkable story of how I discovered that this was overwhelmingly the race which overwinters on Cyprus when it was previously thought to have never been recorded on the island is told here

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Dipper, Westleigh brook, Pennington Flash

A dipper on Westleigh brook, between the bypass and the bridge nearest Leigh college  may possibly be one of the two birds which were present in the latter part of last year, but if so it's done a pretty good job of hiding itself away for the past two or three months.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Caspian Gull, Pennington Flash gull roost

Caspian Gull

Day after day of doing the gull roost and a long day at the flash today in the freezing cold was finally rewarded with this fantastic bird...... and I saw it as well!

I was out and about on a non-birding mission when I got the call from John Tymon to inform me that he had found a 2nd winter Caspian gull in the roost from Green Lane at Pennington Flash. It was 16:15, nearly ten minutes past sunset. Could I get there, what chance did I have?? Only one way to find out, I set off for Green Lane, but no time to go home for the binoculars or the telescope, I didn't even have my coat, my hat or my gloves. All I had was enthusiasm and hope.

I pulled up alongside John, who thankfully was still there and he let me view the bird through his scope and take these few photos. Only at that point did I realise how cold it was and I decided that I'd done all that I could so I got back in the car and headed home. The light had completely gone, I had no optics, I had no warm clothing.

This is only the second ever Caspian gull at the flash, both found by John and both also seen by me!  It's clearly a different bird to the first which we saw just before Christmas, because unlike todays bird the first had a glaucous gull like bill, pink with a black tip.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Desert wheatear, Whitby

Desert wheatear

We travelled through snow and ice across the wild North Yorkshire Moors to the beautiful coastal harbour town of Whitby. Hard to believe as we crossed this bleak and hostile landscape that our target was a bird which breeds in the equally harsh yet meteorologically opposite arid steppe and desert zones in North Africa and the Middle East. Desert wheatear is a regular, annual, late autumn / early winter visitor to the UK, though goodness knows why. It should be wintering on the edge of some desert in Africa or south west Asia, yet here it is, the picture of health, thriving on a coastal footpath on the east coast of the UK, a region notorious for it's icey winds and certainly not noted for its desert like habitats. Nor is this bird a one off, in fact it was the second desert wheatear I have seen between Christmas and New Year on this stretch of coast in recent years.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The scoter experience, North Wales

A favourite day out of mine at this time of year is a trip to the North Wales coast where one of the the highlights is the opportunity to view the scoter flocks which feed offshore. I know that this isn't everybodies cup of tea due to the often extreme viewing distance and the difficulty in picking out individual birds, but I just love the shear spectacle of thousands of black ducks on the water and the challenge of finding something good.

However more on that subject later, because on arrival at Llanddulas today and before we got the scopes out to look through the scoter, we headed 200m down the beach from the car park to the mouth of the river Dulas where for a few days there has been a glaucous gull feeding on the carcass of a harbour porpoise.

No matter how many glaucous gulls I see, and this was about my fifth this year, I never tire of seeing this magnificent gull, the second largest in the world after great black back.  This year has been exceptionally good by recent standards, because often these days I can go a year or two without seeing glaucous gull and I would consider Iceland gull to be the commoner of the two white winged gull species.

This bird might be in the first winter of it's life, but technically it is not in 1st winter plumage. Due to their very late moult, Glaucous gulls do not have a true 1st winter plumage, just varying degrees of worn juvenile plumage. This bird is in juvenile plumage.

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