Sunday, 1 March 2015

A walk in the Lake District

We had a walk in the Lake District today, climbing up Helm Crag onto Gibson Knott, over Pike of Carrs and back to Grasmere via Far Easedale Gill. The views were great and the colours wonderful, mainly the browns of dead bracken and the greens of bryophytes. The weather turned a bit nasty near Pike of Carrs, with strong winds and hail, but when we dropped into the valley things calmed down significantly.






Saturday, 28 February 2015

Little Bunting, Glamorgan

Having seen the penduline tits so quickly we then had time to head up to Cardiff, to Forest Farm where there has been a very photogenic little bunting. The hide took a bit of finding, if anybody reads this and is planning to go, you need to go to the hide adjacent to the utility block in the Forest Farm Conservation Centre. The hide is not signposted, does not appear on any map we found, and is very well hidden from the road! However, once we found the hide, the bunting was easy, at times coming as close as a few feet, and the sun even tried to come out and made a dull day a bit brighter and better for photography. My first little bunting since the bird at Eccleston Mere in 1994.







Penduline Tits, Darts Farm Devon

Darts Farm near Exeter in Devon is the oddest RSPB reserve I've ever been to. You pull into the car park of a shopping centre and go through the Cotswold Outdoor shop to get to the RSPB reception. The "reserve", or at least the bit we saw, was a hide with no back in between two small fishing lakes and a couple of flooded fields. Between one of the lakes and the hide, there was a small patch of bulrush and here, unlikely as it might seem, three penduline tits have taken up residence since at least Christmas.

They do come and go, and have been seen on the other side of the river as far as RSPB Bowling Green marsh and Exminster marshes, and between 14th and 23rd February they seemed to disappear from the area completely with no reported sightings from anywhere.

We arrived at Darts Farm at 9:15am following a four hour trouble free drive from Merseyside. The birds had not been seen when we arrived and we expected a long wait. There were several stonechats on the bulrushes and at least four chiffchaffs, as well as a few wigeon, black-tailed godwits and curlew on the flooded fields. Then suddenly a penduline tit popped up onto a bulrush, and was immediately joined by a second. Where they came from I couldn't say, but suddenly they were right in front of us and performing admirably, tearing up the bulrushes in their search for food. We only saw two birds, and that has been the way of it recently, some days two are seen, other days three.

I've seen penduline tits on the nest in Greece and in winter in Spain, but these were my first in the UK.

UK: 406 (Penduline tit)







Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Travels around Cumbria



Great Gable and Wastwater.



The view through the window of  my B&B in Ravenglass.



Hodbarrow slag heaps, err sorry RSPB reserve, possibly my least favourite RSPB reserve! Still there were around 10 Eider, 30 red-breasted mergansers and 20 goldeneye on the reserve today, so it wasn't all bad news, and a rainbow always helps!



Monday, 23 February 2015

High tide at Morecombe Bay, part 2

I was driving past Leighton Moss today and following the spectacular scenes there yesterday, I decided to eat my lunch on the saltmarsh (who wouldn't??). I also hoped for a better view of the white-fronted geese.

The scenes today were equally as dramatic. Though receding from its new moon peak of a few days ago, the tide still reached 10m today and driven in by the ferocious and bitterly cold wind it probably easily reached the heights of yesterday. There were lots of waders huddled together in large flocks, mainly black-tailed godwits, dunlin and redshank, and every now and then they would fly up and perform spectacular aerial displays. My luck was in, the white-fronts were much closer today, a family party of  two adults and three young birds. There were three birders watching them from the gate near the railway bridge which you pass under on your way to the Eric Morecombe hide car park..... and this is where my dilemma started.

They were looking straight into the sun, the birds were a good distance away and the wind was severely shaking their scopes. Pretty poor views in other words. Needlessly poor I thought. The birds were right alongside the saltmarsh footpath which I described yesterday. While we watched, a brightly coloured jogger ran right past the geese. Then a dog walker strolled past with his dog off the leash. Finally two walkers went past dressed in bright red and yellow jackets. They all passed quite close to the geese which didn't bat an eyelid. What should I do? If I hadn't had my binoculars and scope with me I wouldn't have thought twice about it, I'd have just walked down the footpath. Yet with my birding gear around my neck, it seemed wrong to walk towards the geese, especially while other birders were watching them. It was almost like I should know better. Should know better?? What's that all about? The birds were alongside a regularly used public footpath and I'd just watched various footpath users walk right past them. There is plenty of other similar habitat in the area, just look at the photographs below, the birds only had to move 100m away to the next field to be clear of the footpath. I compromised, I waited for the other birders to leave and then I was gone, off down the footpath. I got up to the geese and they barely even acknowledged I was there and I sat on the bank and ate my butties and watched the birds at quite close range and with the sun behind me. Fantastic birds!


Apart from the pink bill, European white-fronts are much paler, especially on the face and breast and are smaller and daintier  than Greenland white-fronts.


Look at the size of this greylag compared to the white-fronts!




I don't see that many European white-fronts, and the youngsters I've seen in the past have all been in the early part of winter and have always had no white on the face and no black bars on their bellies. However, you can see all five birds in this photo, and whilst only the adults have barring, they all have white faces. Obviously the youngsters attain the white faces as the winter progresses, but it appears that a white face alone is not a sign of adulthood, as I have always assumed, it's actually the barring on the belly which shows that the bird is a mature adult. I don't know if the barring changes with age, e.g. does the breast become paler and the barring more intense as the bird gets older? The two adults here are different. One is quite a lot paler than the other, and the youngsters don't seem as pale on the breast as the adults.

Again, notice the huge size difference of the greylags. The second bird from the right is a Canada x greylag hybrid.


Some of the greylags had orange neck collars. I don't know where these are from but I don't think they are Icelandic birds. I think that they are more likely part of some banding scheme in England. There are three populations of greylag in the UK in winter. The first is a resident, native breeding population in the Hebrides and western Scotland, the second is Icelandic breeding birds which over winter in Scotland, mainly Orkney these days, and the third is the feral population that resides in most of England, Wales and southern Scotland. The birds at Leighton Moss fall into this latter category. My guess is that these orange neck collars are intended to track the movements of feral birds. I'm not a big fan of neck collars, they never look particularly comfortable to me, and on genuinely wild birds (e.g. Pink-feet) they spoil the illusion of wildness when you see them in a flock.


A 10m high tide at the Eric Morecombe hide (in the foreground). Every picture tells a story they say. Well this one only tells part of the story. It doesn't tell you that I could barely stand up in the wind when I took it, or that it was bitterly cold and my fingers were so numb that I could hardly press the shutter to take the picture, or that I was in agony with a blister on my foot and could barely walk! Still, enjoy the photo......

Red-throated Diver, Fairhaven Lake

There has been a red-throated diver on Fairhaven Lake for a few days, but today was my first opportunity to have a look at it. I had heard that it showed well at times, but this was ridiculous, it came with a few feet, seemingly oblivious to my presence. It's a cracking looking bird, obviously in winter plumage, but the combination of a startlingly bright sunny day and a snowy white throat was a real problem for the camera. However by making a few adjustments to the camera settings I managed to tone the white down a bit, and the photos below were about the best I managed. Even some of these look a bit over exposed, but it would be churlish to be to unhappy with these. Notice the birds red eye.


Sunday, 22 February 2015

High tide at Morecombe Bay

Today we braved the weather and took a favourite walk around Leighton Moss. The walk starts from the Eric Morecombe hide car park and goes over the hillside which you can see in front of you from Lillian's hide, drops down to Leighton Hall and enters Leighton Moss at the far end of the Public Causeway. Normally, following lunch in the café, we continue the walk through Silverdale to Jack Scout and Jenny Brown's Point and then back to the car via the saltmarsh footpath. However today, with the weather turning nastier by the minute, and with a 10.3m tide approaching and a sign on the car park warning that it might flood today, it seemed more appropriate to cut short the walk and rescue the car.


The fields near the car park and adjacent to the railway line often hold geese, and today in amongst the greylags there were five European whitefronts. A bit distant but they stood out nicely.

The bad news about cutting the walk short was that we would miss out the saltmarsh at high tide, so we took a slight detour before returning to the car and went for a look. The tide was right up to the footpath, I've never seen it so high here, and we clearly couldn't have done our usual walk because parts of it were under water. Look at the house and the chimney in the photos below, we normally walk right past them!




Eric Morecombe hide.



Finally we got back to the car, and not a moment too soon. There were two RSPB staff guarding the closed gate to the car park and mine was the last car. I don't know if the car park did flood, but it was a close call.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

High tide on the Dee

Reaching 10.3m at 12.42, it was the highest tide of the year today on the Dee estuary, and as usual Parkgate was the place to be. I arrived early at 10.30 to make sure I got a spot on the car park because it was bound to be busy.

I walked north from the car park, past the golf course up to the point where the footpath disappeared. It was pandemonium on the saltmarsh, with birds everywhere. Waders, ducks, egrets and gulls were flying in all directions, and two short-eared owls were flushed by the rising tide. A merlin shot past scattering everything that had time to see it. A hen-harrier had been seen before I arrived but I missed it.

Then I walked back to the Old Baths car park at Parkgate. The tide was now very close to it's peak and I wanted to be in place for when it broke the bank and flooded in up to the wall, because that's when the snipes and water rails are flushed, and also when the small mammals can be seen fleeing the saltmarsh.

I wasn't disappointed, a single jack snipe went up, and I saw at least two water rails. There were shrews and voles swimming in the water, and best of all somebody spotted a harvest mouse. Also on the tidal wrack, a single water pipit.

Soon there was no saltmarsh left, it was just water, and everything that was going to flush had already done so, and ground hunting raptors such as harriers and owls had nowhere to hunt. I left Parkgate at 13.30 and headed to Denhall lane in the hope that there would be some uncovered saltmarsh left here, and perhaps that was where the raptors would be. Fortunately this proved correct, somebody pointed out three short-eared owls on the ground, I found a peregrine perched on a post, a ringtail hen-harrier flew past as did a great white egret. All in all a tremendous day on the Dee.
 

Parkgate Old Baths at high tide.


Looking towards the Boathouse and Parkgate.



Short-eared owl.









Merlin


This water rail was on a rapidly decreasing island!


Eventually the island floated away and right past me!


Eventually it decided it was time to leave and flew over my head into a hedge. I'm pretty certain I've never managed to get a photo of a flying water rail before.


This harvest mouse was alongside the wall at the Old Baths.