Monday, 28 January 2019

Clues to the survival of a Blyth's Reed Warbler in winter

Early in its stay, the Blyth's reed warbler at Hope Carr disappeared for three and a half days during a period of harsh, freezing conditions, the worst of the winter so far, and led to speculation that it had either moved on or more likely died. After all, what could an insectivorous species find to feed on in such harsh conditions? I think that this photo helps answer the question.

The prey item is I think a spider egg sac, or possibly a moth pupa, both of which I guess form a staple part of its diet especially when temperatures are sub-zero and adult invertebrates are inactive. The brambles are probably full of egg sacs or pupa such as this, attached to the bottom of leaves or bramble stems or other vegetation and they don't disappear or die just because of a few freezing nights or heavy snow. For the warbler it's like visiting the frozen food section at the supermarket! I don't know enough about the ecology of reed warblers to know if feeding on egg sacs and/or pupa is just a winter thing or if it happens all year. It would be interesting to know, but I guess that it's not that common or surely more insectivorous birds would over winter? Just as blackcaps change their diet from insects to berries in the winter, perhaps Blyth's reed warblers change from adult prey to pupa / eggs in winter? Actually the thought occurs to me that since this is probably the first ever overwintering Blyth's reed warbler in the UK and possibly even Europe, that this is probably also the first occasion that a winter food item of the species has been recorded in this country / continent. In the afternoon when temperatures rose slightly the bird was also seen briefly flycatching.

The Blyth's reed warbler showed better than ever today in glorious sunshine at Hope Carr, but it's still a difficult bird. Plenty left saying that they only had fleeting glimpses, and even more left without a photo, so I'm happy with these photos from my little bridge camera! The weather forecast for the next two days is for heavy rain / sleet / snow / sub-zero temperatures so it was good to see it feeding up so well today.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

A great couple of days at Hope Carr

Well, I've spent a lot of time at Hope Carr over the past week, probably in excess of 24 birding hours, and most of that has been standing in front of a bramble patch waiting for a single bird to give itself up. It's been an uncomfortable experience standing in mud next to a sewage works in wind, rain, sleet, snow, fog and often in sub-zero temperatures, but it's been well worth it!

After an absence of three and a half days, the Blyth's reed warbler decided to put in another appearance today. I never really believed that it had gone given the weather we have had recently, but I was starting to think that perhaps it was dead. However as predicted, as soon as the first rays of sunshine emerged through the clouds today, the mildest day since last Sunday, a "tak, tak" call was heard from the brambles and shortly afterwards the bird began to show. I arrived on site at 10:15 just as the bird finally showed well for the first time and I saw it very well on and off until about 12:30. For most of this period the bird was very vocal, though for the last half hour or so it more or less stopped calling. Much appreciated by the many birders who finally managed to connect with it.

However it's not just the warbler which has made the past few days so special, there's a decent supporting cast as well. Putting in a regular appearance are two green sandpipers, chiffchaff, adult Mediterranean gulls, tree sparrows, grey wagtails, meadow pipits, 100+teal, 20 shoveler, 30 gadwall and 15 tufted ducks. Even better, on Monday a flock of 9 whooper swans flew over, on Friday a 3rd winter Iceland gull flew over and today a juvenile marsh harrier was added to the list. If I saw that lot plus the warbler anywhere locally I'd be delighted, but when it's just a two mile walk through farmland from my home it makes me think that maybe I should visit more often.....

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Hope Carr

An unseasonable reed warbler was found on Sunday at Hope Carr nature reserve on the outskirts of Leigh and just a couple of miles walk my home. Even though it was initially reported as "only" a Eurasian reed warbler, it immediately piqued my interest because I don't ever recall hearing of them overwintering before, though with climate change perhaps it does occasionally happen in southern England these days. So it was worth a look anyway I thought, but I also wanted to see it for insurance purposes.... it wouldn't be the first time that a species on such an unusual date was later re-identified from photographs as something much rarer, and thankfully so it proved once again.

I decided to have a look for the bird on Monday, if nothing else it was a bit different to my usual walk around Pennington Flash. I arrived at about 9:30am to find two birders had got there before me and they provided me with two pieces of contrasting news; the first was that the bird had not been seen so far today and the second, it was now considered to be a Blyth's reed warbler, identified from photos and video taken the day before. So my hunch had proven correct, but the main part of my plan was that I should see the warbler which was no closer to happening...... the bird wasn't seen all day Monday.

The weather forecast for Tuesday was pretty grim, snow or sleet showers for most of the day, occasionally heavy. It didn't sound great and the temptation was to stay indoors, especially following the no-show the day before. However I decided that it was worth another look for what would be a new bird for me and I arrived on site at 10:15am, again joining up with two other birders. Today the news was better, they had just seen the bird in a patch of dense bramble. After a nervy 10 minutes without any further sightings, eventually I managed to relocate it in a different bramble patch just as the sun was breaking through the clouds. It showed very well on and off for the next 30 minutes or so and was heard calling frequently with a harsh "tack", quite unlike anything uttered by Eurasian reed warbler.

Apart from the call it's the emarginations on the primaries which help clinch the identification but seeing those was beyond me today and my photos are nowhere near good enough. However others have taken much better photos and confirmed the identification. Finally after it's brief appearance, the sun disappeared for the day and the bird shortly afterwards. A fantastic Greater Manchester tick, a fantastic inland record and a great winter record, possibly the UK's first ever overwintering Blyth's reed warbler.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Return of the yellow-legged gull

This yellow-legged gull has returned to the Pennington Flash gull roost again for the winter. Now an adult in it's 4th winter, it's returned ever year since it was a juvenile. At this time of year adult yellow-legged gulls can be very difficult to pick out when they are on the water like this. Yes they have a darker mantle than the British herring gull and usually a brighter unstreaked white head, but the northern race herring gull argentatus which is quite common at the roost in winter also has a darker mantle and after Christmas many acquire a white head. At the roost I skip past many birds which might be adult yellow-legged gulls but which could be argentatus but I just can't be sure. Yet this bird stands out like a sore thumb. It's a real cracker of a bird, small square head, thick neck, dark mantle, long wings and small mirrors. We did see it standing on a buoy briefly when it's yellow legs were clearly seen.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Returning Iceland gulls

Warrington's returning adult Iceland Gull was back today for at least its 6th winter. It usually frequents an area between Warrington College and Tesco superstore, and often you can see it flying across the A49 or sometimes it might be on a roof, though if it chooses a flat roof it can disappear out of view for long periods. Thanks to John Tymon for alerting me to it's presence today. John first saw the bird as an adult six winters ago, so it's possible that it has been returning unnoticed for a lot longer than that and it's true age is anybody's guess. Why it should keep returning to spend the winter around Warrington town centre is an even bigger mystery, I would have thought that the pickings would have been greater if it joined the throngs of gulls at a local landfill site. Still, it's a beautiful bird and a very welcome addition to the local avifauna.

Click here to see some photos of the bird from last April

John first saw the bird near Decathlon today but it wasn't there when I arrived. I parked up and walked towards the college and found the bird on the lawn in front of the college, feeding alone on worms which it brought to the surface with that strange little dance that so many species of gull perform.

In previous winters this bird has very rarely roosted at Pennington Flash, but an adult appeared in the roost for the first time this winter about eight days ago and has been seen on at least one other occasion since then and may well be the same bird.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Walking in the Lakes

Grasmere, Cumbria
I think that the official term is phased. That's me at the moment. Since I came back from my second trip to Australia, birding in the UK holds no interest to me. Bird guides is uninstalled on my phone and the only news I get is from twitter and the Manchester Birding Forum. Even these I hardly look at. I've not even ventured half a mile down the road to Pennington Flash since I got back, except for one gull roost visit. I have no interest in what might be on my doorstep.

On the otherhand I have been walking in Cumbria on several occasions with Elaine, and how refreshing it is to not take the binoculars or camera, not to care what birds I might be missing and simply enjoy the views....

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