Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The pattering of little gulls

It was a privilege to watch four little gulls at Pennington Flash this morning, hawking for insects and pattering across the water like storm petrels. They were the 10th species of gull I have recorded at the flash this year. 

It was a real birders day at the Flash this morning, cold, dull, muddy and very wet, with persistant drizzle and best of all a south easterly breeze. The "bad" weather was enough to discourage all but the most hardy, and there were few dogs, no kids, no yachts, no fishermen in Ramsdales, no fun run, no photographers, no golfers and just a handful of birders. Bliss!

I started off in the south east corner at 7:30am and made my way towards the yacht club. Almost the first bird I saw on the water was the long staying long-tailed duck, but it was also immediately obvious that there were nowhere near the number of sand martins that were present yesterday. In fact I only saw one bird initially and eight birds in total all morning. Chiffchaffs were singing in the woods, I counted about seven in total, and a Cetti's warbler singing at Sorrrowcow pond was the first of three I heard today.

I was in Byrom road when I received a text from another St Helens birder, my old Prescot Reservoirs buddy Bill Harrison, who was in Horrock's hide, informing me that four little gulls had just dropped onto the water. Descision time, what to do.... should I go back or carry on? I decided to carry on in the hope that I would be able to see them from the Point.

It seemed to take forever to get to the Point, I was slipping and sliding in mud and water was running down my back, and throughout it all Bill was sending me updates. The birds were flying, they were back on the water, now they were flying again. Would I get to the Point before they disappeared? The drizzle gave me hope, and when I did finally arrive at the Point the birds were still present, flying between Horrock's hide and the Gap on the  south shore. I could now relax and I watched them for a bit and then spent some time on the Ruck and around Ramsdales looking for grounded migrants, before heading over to Horrock's hide.

The little gulls were still present and showing well when I arried at the hide, albeit in dull light and drizzle, but that didn't matter, because it was the poor weather which was keeping them there. Great to see these lovely birds so well, they pattered like petrels and hawked like tiny barn owls, but at sometime after 12:30 it stopped raining and the birds left, and were not seen in the afternoon. Yet another great and deserved find by Bill who puts in more hours than anybody at the Flash.

Year: 176 (Little gull)

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Off we go again!

It's that time of year again and 2017 looks like it might be my most exciting year of surveying so far. Today I took delivery of some fresh survey equipment in preperation for this years effort, and I thought I'd better take a photo before it all gets used! Perhaps the most exciting development for me this year is to be awarded a five month invertebrate survey because they come along so infrequently and they are generally amongst the most interesting of surveys. They're also very civilised surveys, needing to be done on warm sunny days with no requirement to be up at dawn or out until midnight. They make a refreshing change from newts, birds and bats. I may also be doing some NVC habitat surveys on peat bogs in Northern Ireland again this year, which is always exciting because I love the place, and peat bogs are a passion. I love the detail of NVC surveys, they're challanging for all sorts of reasons, and recently I've added some peat bog analysis into the mix to enable me to better comment on the health of bogs.

So the equipment on view here includes my blue NVC quadrat (in the forground), a Robinson moth trap, sweep net, pond net, butterfly / moth net, fish net, pitfall traps, bowl traps, telescope, binoculars, microscope, waders, GPS, hand lens, pooter, sample trays, propylene glycol, hard hat, head torch and a long pointy stick for testing the depth of peat. It looks like an exciting summer season ahead!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Black-necked grebe, Pennington Flash

There was a stunning black-necked grebe at Pennington Flash today, it spent most of its time with a small flock of tufted ducks up against the trees between the Point and Ramsdales and was often quite difficult to see except distantly from Horrock's hide. However it did occasionally come more out into the open water and on one occasion it came quite close to me on the Point, allowing me to get these photographs.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Chough, a new English tick

After a failed attempt yesterday to see a chough in Stanley Park, Blackpool in dismal weather, Ray Banks and I decided to try again this afternoon following more reports on Birdguides today. Initially the weather wasn't much better than yesterday, with heavy, soaking drizzle making viewing and especially photography virtually impossible. To make matters worse, the corvids on the golf course were very flighty, with any movement towards them, even at 100 yards distant seeming to spook them or perhaps they were just naturally flighty.

However we were lucky because another birder had found the chough just before we got there, and though it was out of sight when we met him, we at least knew roughly the area it was in. We waited for about 30 minutes and had occasional brief views of the bird before the heavens opened and we headed for the cafe from where I posted a few very poor photos on facebook and twitter.

By the time we had finished our cup of tea and a scone, the rain had stopped and the sun had even decided to show its face. We headed back to the golf course for a second look at the bird, and this time had more success. The chough unexpectedly flew over my head calling, circled around a few times with the jackdaws and then landed low down in a tree allowing me to fire off a few much better photos, before once again the whole flock flew off to the far end of the golf course.

The bird has no rings, which I think is quite interesting. Almost every bird I see in Wales has a leg full of coloured rings. This is the first chough I have ever seen in England, and is probably the same individual that was seen on a high school playing field at Marshside, Southport a couple of weeks ago. The species has expanded its range in North Wales in recent years, with several pairs now on the Great Orme at Llandudno where just a few years ago there were none, and I guess that it's not inconceivable that this bird flew from Llandudno to Formby and then made its way north via Southport to Blackpool. On the the otherhand choughs are also on the Isle of Man, which is not that far away either, so it could have originated from either of these populations. I believe it's about the 9th record of the species in Lancashire.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Bluethroat, Willow Tree Fen

Ray Banks and I finally succumbed to the lure of the Lincolnshire bluethroat today. If I'm honest, I have to say that personally I've put off going so far because these kind of "events" leave me a bit cold. It's just about as far removed from birding as I can imagine, bar perhaps doing the shopping at Asda. You're watching a bird that's been lured to show at point blank range, by the offer of meal worms, and you're surrounded by big lenses and not many binoculars. It reminded me a bit of the red-footed falcon in Staffordshire which was tempted by crickets. Yeah, bluethroats are cracking birds, of course they are and it is great to get some half decent photos of one, but the bluethroats I remember most were those skulking individuals which you had to work for and afforded the briefest of views at Martin Mere, Leasowe and Fair Isle. 

To be honest I don't suppose there's much wrong with feeding this bluethroat, though the red-footed falcon perhaps became a little too tame and ended up shot, possibly as a result, but I just find the whole thing a bit uncomfortable and it's not really why I go birding. However there's no denying that I had probably my best views ever of bluethroat, we got a few photos and we left happy. Then we moved on to Adwick Washlands in South Yorkshire where we saw our fist garganey of the year and 4 avocets.

Year: 174 (Bluethroat, garganey)

Bluethroat and mealworms.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

In the the dappled shade of an ancient woodland in March

You might think that daffodils are one of the most familiar flowers of the early spring, but actually even in the countryside most daffodils you see are garden varieties which are the descendants of escapes or deliberate planting. These days it's actually quite difficult to find the native wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus which are identified by their narrow, grey-green leaves and pale yellow petals surrounding a darker yellow trumpet giving the flower a distinctive two-tone effect.  Surely there can be few more beautiful places to find them growing than the dappled shade of an ancient woodland on the coast near Arnside in Cumbria, as we did today. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Goodbye winter, thanks for the memories

Has there ever been a winter as good for birding as the winter of 2016/17? I'm not sure that I can remember one. With winter now fast slipping away and signs of spring all around us, it seems a good oportunity to reflect on what has been an exceptional few months for birding.

Of course, a good winter for birding does not necessarily mean a good winter for birds or for weather. I suppose it depends on how you define a good winter. Personally I'd like to see a lot more frost with bright blue sparkly skies, and a bit more winter like weather generally between December and February. Mild, dull, rainy and windy days such as we seem to get a lot of these days are not really my cup of tea and are actually quite alarming in the overall scheme of things. 

Then there's the birds themselves. Some species may benefit from a mild winter, especially birds such as Cetti's and Dartford warblers whose populations can suffer badly in harsh, cold winters. On the otherhand insectiverous birds may suffer in the spring if a mild winter encourages flowers and invertebrates to emerge earlier in the year and thus too early for the hatching of young chicks which depend on them for food. Mild winters may also encourage pests and diseases to affect invertebrate populations in a negative way during the winter, which again will affect the productivity of nesting birds in the spring. And finally, is it really good news if we have influxes of certain species into the north-west? Does it mean that there is something wrong in their more traditional wintering grounds either here in the UK or in Europe? I don't know, I can't answer these questions. So perhaps I'd better re-phrase the first sentance above:

"Has there ever been a winter which seemed as good for birding as the winter of 2016/17?".........

The meteorlogical winter starts on the first day of December and ends on the last day of February. In most winters during that period I can usually expect to pick up one, perhaps two new UK ticks. In 2016/17 I saw five new birds. Not only that, in the case of two of the five (black-throated thrush and pine bunting) I managed to see two different individuals. I guess that the appearance of these birds, along with that of the dusky thrush in Derbyshire, was a result of the exceptional autumn we had for Siberian vagrants in 2016.

Fig. 1: Dusky thrush in Derbyshire. Found whilst I was in Cyprus at the beginning of December, it was identified, twitched, accepted by British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC), gone and fortunately refound before I got back.

Fig. 2: Black-throated thrush St. Asaph, North Wales.

Another welcome addition to my UK list during the winter was the Pacific diver in Northumberland. Not exactly local, but it saved me the long drive to Cornwall for the annually returning bird near Penzance. Amazingly even though it obliged by presenting itself to us at point blank range at Druridge County Park, it wasn't even the winner of the best diver of the winter award. That honour went to an awesome white-billed diver cruising down the river near Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. Not a lifer for me but a strong contender for the bird of the winter award.

Fig. 3: Pacific diver Northumberland.

Fig. 4: White-billed diver Lincolnshire.

I can't remember a winter as good for geese in the north-west. North Lancashire put on a particularly good show, with several scarce or rare species joining the many thousands of pink-feet around Pilling and Eagland Hill. In a single day it was possible to see around 10,000 pink-footed geese, adult red-breasted goose, up to 30 European white-fronts, several each of tundra and taiga bean, a few barnacle geese, pale-bellied brent goose, greylags, blue phase lesser snow goose, Greenland white-fronted goose and Todd's Canada goose. Nearby around 200 whooper and 30 Bewick's swans and a wintering black redstart were a bonus.

Fig. 5: Red-breasted goose with up to 25 European white-fronts north Lancashire.

Fig. 6: Red-breasted goose.

This was a pattern repeated in many places across the country, with lots of small scattered flocks of European white-fronts and both species of bean goose. One such flock in Essex contained potentially the first genuinely wild lesser white-fronted goose seen in the UK for many a year. An exceptional year for geese! What I can't say is if these scattered flocks represented additional birds to those in the regular wintering flocks, or if they were just the same birds, more thinly spread across the UK. A good winter for birding is not necesserily a good winter for birds.

Fig. 7: Taiga bean goose north Lancashire.

Fig. 8: Juvenile glaucous gull Lyme and Wood Pit tip, Haydock.

White-winged gulls were also around in higher than usual numbers. Locally Pennington Flash had a juvenile glaucous gull on several occasions in the roost and possibly up to three Iceland gulls, with an adult on at least three occasions and a juvenile present on most evenings for a couple of months. The same birds, or others, were seen regularly for a week or so at Lyme and Wood Pit tip at Haydock and in the Newton-le-Willows area, whilst slightly further afield at Gowy Meadows near Chester, at least three glaucous and two Iceland gulls were regularly present. Other local roosts also had visits from both species, with Kumlien's gull also reported from sites in the north-west on a couple of occasions. Nationally the east coast in particular had good numbers of white-wingers, with several birds seen at some sites.

Fig. 9: Adult Iceland gull Vista Road, Newton-le-Willows.

Fig. 10: Juvenile glaucous gull Vista Road, Newton-le-Willows

Other gulls were also around in good numbers, with at least three 2nd winter, a 3rd winter and a couple of adult yellow-legged gulls at Pennington Flash. Mediterranean gulls were present over the winter at the Flash, peaking at four birds, with one in almost complete summer plumage from January and occasionally seen coming to bread.

Fig. 11: 2nd winter Yellow-legged gull, Pennington Flash. This bird spent a single day at the Flash. Note the yellow and black bill.

Fig. 12: This 2nd winter yellow-legged gull with a completely black bill virtually overwintered at the Flash in 2016/17, present on many days from just before Christmas to at least March, it could sometimes be seen coming to bread on the car park.

The north-west also shared in the waxwing invasion of 2016/17. At its peak there were many flocks of 50 or more birds seen throughout the region, with particularly good numbers in North Wales, and locally the VW garage in Warrington was the place to go.

Fig. 13: Waxwing St Asaph.

Egrets have of course been getting commoner for years, but the winter of 2016/17 saw a real explosion of birds. The long predicted yet so far painfully slow colonisation of the UK by cattle egrets now seems a real possibility, with many flocks of four or five birds at several sites across the UK, including up to 10 birds in the north-west alone. Surely breeding will take place somewhere in 2017? Meanwhile great white egrets have also greatly increased dramatically, with double figure counts on the Dee estuary, which also had a spectacular 12 marsh harriers roosting. I managed 12 great white egrets in the same scope view on one occasion from Burton Point. Little egrets are now so common that they are counted in the hundreds at some north-west roosts, including Burton Mere Wetlands and Southport marine lake. Even so 2016/17 seemed a better than average year, with an unprecedented three, possibly four birds present on occasion at Pennington Flash, where previously just one was a good record.

Fig. 14: The cattle egret flock at Burton Mere Wetlands trying to outcompete  a similar sized flock at Southport.

Fig. 15: Unprecidented numbers of great white egrets were on Burton Marsh.

Other highlights for me over the winter included a cracking desert wheatear at Lytham St. Annes, a stunning hooded merganser in Scotland, a slightly dodgy blue rock thrush in Gloucestershire and a wonderful pallid harrier in East Yorkshire, plus the usual early year goodies such as hawfinches, leking black grouse, firecrest and many, many more. So yes, I think it's fair to say that the winter of 2016/17 was a good one for birding!

Fig. 16: Caspian gull Shaw, Oldham also seen at Audenshaw Reservoir.

Fig. 17: Blue rock thrush Stow-on-the-Wold.

Fig. 18: Drake hooded merganser, Clyde. This bird was seen displaying to goldeneye and teal.

Fig. 19: Lesser snow goose with greylags in north Lancashire.

Fig. 20: European white-fronted geese with pink-footed geese in north Lancashire

Fig. 21: Desert wheatear Lytham St Annes. A typical end of year bird, this one was exceptionally obliging.

Fig. 22: Juvenile pallid harrier in Lincolnshire, also seen in East Yorkshire in January. The most beautiful of the harrier species at this age in my opnion.

Fig. 23: This 1st winter long-tailed duck spent the whole of the winter on Pennington Flash, and was one of several in the north-west.

Fig. 24: Up to five scaup spent the whole of the winter at Pennington Flash, almost unprecidented in recent times, and this was an event repeated at many reservoirs and lakes across the region.

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