Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Bittern, Mere Sands Wood

It's not very often that I take a photo which requires no further words, but this is one of those occasions.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The 'omissus' trap

Just when you thought it couldn't get any more confusing, along comes omissus. Anybody who does the gull roost at Pennington Flash will know the difficulties of picking out a yellow-legged gull. The idea that adult yellow-legged gulls can be identified simply by a mantle shade of grey which is somewhere between herring and lesser black-back is almost laughable at this time of year when there are lots of Scandinavian Herring gulls 'argentatus' about which also have mantles somewhere between herring and lesser black-back. Of course in contrast to yellow-legged gulls, adult argentatus have pink legs so problem solved if you see one out of the water (not easy at Pennington, but perhaps on the spit or a buoy). Not quite!

It turns out that herring gulls from the north east Baltic (omissus) have not only yellow legs, but their mantle colour is darker than the British herring gull (but lighter than argentatus). I've no idea how common these birds are in the UK, possibly even rarer than yellow-legged gulls, but obviously these are a potentially serious pitfall when claiming an adult yellow-legged gull. The bird in the photographs landed on the P&O ferry in Rotterdam harbour in the Netherlands.

The taxonomic status of omissus is unclear, and it's not certain if it should be regarded as a race of herring gull or not. There is an interesting article on yellow-legged herring gulls on the gull research website here

In truth, a combination of features are required to clinch the identification of even an adult yellow-legged gull and apart from leg colour these include head shape, bill shape, mantle shade, wing length and mirrors. Trouble is I know the theory, but putting it into practise in the field is not easy and like many other birders, I find the identification of yellow-legged gull very difficult.

Rotterdam harbour.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

More from the Fylde goose flocks

I don't think it's an over exaggeration to say that it's been a spectacular year for goose watching on the Fylde. The winter of 2016/17 has been a goose watchers dream, with lots of scarcer species in amongst the large flocks of pink-feet. Without doubt the most exciting development has been the numbers of European white-fronts in the area, reflecting what appears to be a good year for the species elsewhere in the UK. The icing on that particular cake is the presence of an adult red-breasted goose which is clearly associating with the white-fronts, giving it great credentials as a genuine wild bird. European white-fronts are one of the classic carrier species for red-breasted goose, and a bird accompanying them during a large influx is probably as good as it gets.

There were at least 20 European white-fronts in this flock, and you can count at least six around the red-breasted goose in this photo alone. Elsewhere we saw several other birds in other flocks.

There has also been a relatively large influx of tundra and taiga bean geese this winter. We didn't see any today, but they are still around, and there is also a pale-bellied brent goose and a Greenland white-front in the area.

This melanistic pink-foot caught my attention near Pilling.

Two more white-fronts, these near Pilling.

Perhaps less convincing are the credentials of this bird. This is the blue phase lesser snow goose which arrived at Marshside just before Christmas. When all that you could see was its head a mile distant with 2000 pink-feet, it looked pretty convincing, but then it left the pink-feet and joined up with greylags. Worse still, when they moved to the Fylde, their preferred feeding areas were fields adjacent to an ornimental pond at the entrance to a caravan park, where they allow approach as close as 30m. Still, none of this proves that it is an escape, just as associating with European white-fronts doesn't prove that the red-breasted goose is wild. The red-breasted goose simply looks and feels more wild because it is associating with the right crowd and has so far not disgraced itself. In the case of the snow goose, it may just be that a wild bird has latched onto a flock of feral greylags which are fairly tame, and therefore the snow goose is more approachable than it would be in a flock of 2000 wild and timid pink-feet.

It's always a pleasure to see wild swans, particularly when they include a few of the now scarce Bewick's. Hard to believe that 30 years ago you could go to Martin Mere and see 800 Bewick's, but those days are long gone.

These birds were near Cockersands Abbey.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Birding on the tip

Just occasionally in amongst the more mundane birding experiences you come across a sight so spectacular that it takes the breath away. It might be thousands of geese taking off from a field, or hundreds of thousands of starlings swirling around at a roost, or tens of thousands of knot on an incoming tide. Well yesterday I added thousands of gulls on a rubbish tip to that list of awe inspiring experiences.

When Dave Owen found a juvenile glaucous gull at Penkford Flash, Earlestown which flew off shortly after he saw it, I decided to have a search around the local area to see if I could find it. I was quite interested to see if it was the same bird which I had found at Pennington Flash a couple of weeks ago.

The obvious place to start was Lyme and Woods Pit tip just off Vista road in Haydock. I parked up in the car park and walked up to the perimeter fence.

When I arrived there were hundreds of birds swirling around in the sky but none on the ground as a lorry dumped more food onto the bird table and a bulldozer flattened it.

As soon as the lorry was gone the birds came down in a feeding frenzy. The bulldozer was still flattening the rubbish, but the birds ignored it unless it came too close.

Just incredible scenes and noise, as hundreds of mainly herring gulls descended onto the tip, grabbed a tasy morsel, and then flew away with their prize.

It was actually very difficult to pick out any one individual in swirling masses, I felt a bit like a bird of prey hunting in a starling roost. Which one should I concentrate on? And when the birds landed many were out of view. However I suddenly caught sight of white primaries and realised that the glaucous gull was here. Fortunately it landed in view for a few brief seconds allowing me to fire off a couple of photos.

I'm pretty sure that this is the same glaucous gull that was at Pennington Flash. The white marks on the underwing correspond with markings on the underwing of the Pennington bird, and the large size also fits.

Then the whole lot went almost as suddenly as they had arrived. At first I wasn't sure why, but it soon became clear.

This large falcon with jesses flew over and then around the tip. I guessed that it was a falconer trying to keep the tip clear of birds.

Sure enough, a guy in a bright yellow jacket appeared and the bird landed on his glove and he came down to the fence for a chat. Turns out he's there 5 days a week scaring off the gulls. The falcon is a peregrine x saker hybrid. It's clear that the tactic is only partially working when you see the masses of birds in some of the photos above, but it doesn't help when you're trying to find a white winged gull.

However when the birds are not feeding on the tip they are loafing about in the nearby fields. The following day I relocated the glaucous gull in fields opposite the entrance to the car park, and actually it was much easier to see and I was able to photograph it at my leisure, away from the mad scramble for food on the tip. Not so easy to see and what I didn't notice when I took this photo, there is also an adult Iceland gull in the lefthand side of the picture! It's the bird facing left.

This photo really shows the large tertial step of the glaucous gull!

Glaucous gull (left) and Iceland gull (right)

Adult Iceland gull.

Adult Iceland gull.

Another lorry on the tip restocking the bird table.

After the falcon flushed the gulls yesterday, the glaucous gull flew back to Penkford Flash. The birds are not very approachable here and the vegetation has been cut down to such an extent that everything flushes as soon as you appear. However I did manage a couple of distant photos of the bird from here.

Monday, 13 February 2017

In search of the earthstar

In every biological order there is always one genus or species which catches the imagination more than other members of the same order. We all have our favourites, with birds it might be waxwings or raptors, with plants it might be orchids or alpines, with dragonflies it might be the hawkers, with butterflies the fritillaries, with moths it could be the hawkmoths, with hoverflies the Vollucella (the hornet mimics) etc.

When it comes to fungi, my dream has always been to see the earthstars. What a bizarre group of mushrooms! The fruiting bodies start life looking like an egg, they turn into stars which then invert and look like the legs of some wierd alien creature from "War of the Worlds".

This week I've been fortunate enough to find not one but two species of earthstar right on my doorstep at Pennington Flash, ironically when the last thing on my mind was fungi. I was actually walking between the gull pre-roost in the south-east corner of the flash and the main roost site at Green Lane when I happened upon a collared earthstar Geastrum triplex in the woodland. The gull roost is always a race against time so I took a couple of photos and made a mental note to return the following day, and then continued to Green Lane.

Next day, with Iceland, yellow-legged and Mediterranean gull under my belt the night before, I returned to the same spot and found a few more collared earthstar, but even better, I found a second species, sessile earthstar Geastrum fimbriatum. In some respects this is a better find, because collared earthstar has been recorded at the flash before, but sessile earthstar has not according to the NBN gateway.

The fruiting bodies of earthstars appear in autumn, but they can persist throughout the winter, which is why these particular specimens look a little battered. Rest assured I shall return in the autumn to hopefully photograph some better specimens.

No this is not the result of some dramatic erruption from John Hurt's belly, this is the peristome of sessile earthstar and is where the spores are released from if the fungus is knocked, e.g. by a rain drop.

Return to the patch

Today I was back at my old stomping ground of Eccleston Mere in St Helens, in search of a drake red-crested pochard which would be a new bird for me at the mere. It's been around for a week or two now, but has been very elusive at times, and I failed to see it last week. However it showed very well today in superb light.

Just as impressive, there's a decent selection of wildfowl on the mere at the moment, with around 60 gadwall (my previous best was 11), 60 tufted ducks, two pochard, six wigeon and 11 mute swans.

According to my database, I visited the mere on around 1700 occasions between 1991 and today, and I have over 20,000 records in my database from the place. I've also visited the mere on all 365 days of the year, 366 if you count leap years, and in 2006 I visited on around 250 days in the same year! So yes, I was keen to add a new bird to my mere list!

It's been a good few weeks for birding, with the highlight of this week being the gull roost at Pennington Flash and a superb 1st winter Caspian gull at Shaw near Oldham yesterday. All of this leaves my year list currently on:

UK Year: 164 (latest Caspian gull, velvet scoter)

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