Sunday, 3 January 2016

Pallas's Warbler Paradox

A bit like yellow-browed warblers, I always struggle with Pallas's warblers. I never get good views of them. Perhaps I just don't have the patience or perhaps they just don't comply with my favoured method of birding. I like to keep moving, I'm impatiant to know what's around the next corner. A wide open estuary with thousands of birds to look through is what I like. I can identify, count and catagorise them and then move on to the next group of birds.

Pallas's warblers are tiny birds which move through dense undergrowth, hedges and trees, and never seem to stay still. You can spot one and then lose it almost immediately and not see it again for an hour. You can stand in the same spot for hours on end and only see a handful of goldcrests and maybe a 5 second view of the rear end of a Pallas's warbler as it disappears again.

It's not that I don't like Pallas's warblers, far from it. Actually I think that they are great little birds and really charismatic, being barely the size of a goldcrest and yet having travelled all the way from north-east Asia to be with us, reverse migration in action, they should really be in south-east Asia for the winter. They're attractive little birds, olive green above with whitish underparts, a distinct yellow eyestripe, yellow crown stripe and most impressively a bright yellow rump which they often show off when they habitually hover in search of flies.

True to form, today we stood in often pouring rain for maybe five hours, staring at a hedge and seeing mainly goldcrests. We were at Heswall on Wirral looking for a Pallas's warbler which had been found yesterday afternoon. Our plans to go to Hilbre Island, West Kirby marine lake, Burton Marsh and finally Burton Mere Wetlands lay in disarray. Probably for the best actually, given the weather!

The choices were, stand further back and view through a chain linked fence or stand next to a gate at half the distance and view down a hedge lined lane. If selecting the former option you tended to get more views of the bird, but a telescope was required and you were looking through the fence which always obstructed your view. The latter option was much closer, but the bird didn't show as often and wasn't on view for as long. However if the bird did show, it was often at point blank range and the view was generally unobstructed.

We chose to wait by the gate, having seen it distantly with binoculars through the fence when we first arrived. It was associating with perhaps 10 goldcrests, 5 chiffchaffs, a male blackcap and several long-tailed tits, and the flock was doing some kind of circuit which saw it come past us about every half hour or so. Sometimes the flock would go past and we wouldn't see the Pallas's warbler and we'd have to wait patiently for the next lap and hope, and still the rain poured down. We dare not move for fear of missing the bird and like dead man's shoes, if you did move there were 10 birders behind you ready to take your place and then you'd lost your prime position. Back of the queue was then your lot, peering over shoulders and even less chance of seeing the bird on its next lap.

Over the course of the day, I did get some pleasing views of the bird. A couple of times I saw a small bird with a yellow rump flying away down the lane which was nice, and on at least four occasions I had it 3m away or less and in full view, albeit for just a couple of seconds each time. A smart little bird, this was my second in the north-west, following one in Hightown Dunes in December 2006. I loved it!

By the time we left it was too dark and dismal, and the weather was just too bad to contemplate going anywhere else, but we did call in at West Kirby marine lake and saw the great northern diver again for the year list, plus a couple of red-breasted mergansers.

Year: 82 (Pallas's warbler et al)

Drake red-breasted merganser in the rain!

He's had enough. I don't blame him!

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