Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Red-necked phalarope, Frodsham No. 6 bed

This smart red-necked phalarope has been on Frodsham no. 6 bed for the past three days. I think it's a female but it's certainly not as bright as some I've seen. Sometimes phalaropes can be nice and close, but not this bird which today was at least 300m away.

Leucistic House Sparrow

This leucistic house sparrow near Warrington made me look twice this morning. It's a really nice bird, all of the grey and black bits that a house sparrow would normally have, including its legs, have been replaced by cream.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Hunting hobby, Pennington Flash

This morning I was sitting at the yacht club at Pennington Flash watching hundreds of hirundines, mainly sand martins and hundreds of swifts swirling around over the water. Suddenly at head height a hobby shot past me and started hunting sand martins right in front of me, no more than 10m distant. It twisted and turned with breathtaking speed and agility, and the sand martins scattered in all directions, but too late for one of them as the hobby honed in on its prey and plucked it out of the air with terrifying ease and then shot off across the flash, leaving me breathless. An amazing spectacle and one which I have never experienced before, at least not so close. Also on the club foreshore today, two common sandpipers.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

In the backyard

Photo: Currant Clearwing.

Great to see our resident currant clearwing moths flying this week in the glorious sunshine. Next doors currant bush spills over into our "backyard" and though it's a bit shaded by an old elder tree, we still get these fabulous moths. In the photo above, notice that you can see the moths leg through the left wing.

I spent a few hours today watching ants collecting hondeydew from aphids on the elder tree. It's fascinating to watch, the ants basically run a protection racket, give us your honeydew and we'll protect you from predators. I'm not sure I've actually seen it happening before today. It's really stretching my camera to the limit!

Friday, 19 June 2020

World Albatross Day

Photo: Salvin's albatross, New Zealand.

It's World Albatross Day and here is my contribution! My first albatross experience was way back in May 1986 when I traveled to Shetland to meet the legendary Albert Ross, a black-browed albatross who resided in the gannet colony at Saito, Hermaness from the early 1970s to 1995. Spectacular though Hermaness is, on that day Mr. Ross did not really perform for us and just sat on the cliff below and about the best we managed was to see him stretch his wings. On the positive side, he remains the only albatross I have ever seen landed on the ground. That was my first and so far only albatross experience in the UK. I would have to wait another 29 years for my next albatross encounter. However, between Australia and New Zealand I've now managed to see 11 "species" of albatross and here they are.

The Great albatrosses
These are the giants of the seabird world. At one time they were considered to be just two species, wandering and royal, but these days they are split into several species.

Snowy albatross Diomedea exulans
At 3.5m this bird has the largest wingspan of any bird in the world and is one of the group of wandering albatross. My only encounter with this species was an adult and immature from the Port Fairy pelagic, Victoria, Australia in November 2018.

Photo: Snowy albatross.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Observations of sand martins on the ground

Photo: Sand Martin on one of the yacht club
Throughout the first half of June I visited the yacht club on the south side of Pennington Flash on average about 3 times per day, early morning, midday and late evening. On the morning of 10th June I noticed up to 50 sand martins landing on the gravelly foreshore of the yacht club apparently feeding on invertebrates. Over the next few days I occasionally saw this behaviour repeated, always in the morning and always in dull rainy conditions.

Early morning on 18th June during a period of moderately heavy rain there were around 300 sand martins swirling around low over the water in front of the yacht club apparently feeding on flying insects. Every so often a large part of the flock would land en masse on the yacht club foreshore and appeared to be feeding on something on the ground while the remainder continued to feed over the water. I accessed the yacht club for a closer look and through the telescope I could clearly see that they were actually eating grit. On a couple of occasions I did see them eat what looked like invertebrates but that certainly wasn't the main reason why they were landing. I watched them behave like this for about 30 minutes, flying around feeding and then periodically dropping to the ground to eat grit. I had a walk over to where they were landing and couldn't find a single invertebrate on the ground.

Photo: Substrate on which
the sand martins were landing.

Sand martins are known to eat grit in order to obtain enough calcium for egg laying. According to Turner (1982), the maximum amount of time they can spend collecting calcium is about 30 minutes per day without impacting on the energy needed for egg laying.

The interesting thing is, it clearly wasn't just the females which were landing because on a few occasions I saw males attempt to copulate with the females while they were on the ground. There was no gentle courtship  ritual or display, the males just jumped on the females from behind, but every time the females shook them off. Opportunistic mating is well known amongst sand martins. Unlike swallows, both sand martin parents share the incubation of the eggs and the feeding of the young, but even so the males if given the opportunity will attempt to mate with other females who are in their fertile period. What better indication of a female in her fertile period than a bird which is landed on the ground and collecting calcium for the production of eggs? Given the time of year I guess that this must be the start of second broods.

What I can't explain is why I only saw the birds behave in this way on cloudy, rainy mornings.

Very occasionally they were accompanied by a handful of house martins but usually it was exclusively sand martins.

The main sources of information for this post were:

"A Handbook to the swallows and martins of the world", Turner & Rose, Poyser (1989)

"Timing of laying by swallows and sand martins", Turner, Journal of Animal Ecology (1982)

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Pennington Flash

A dull humid day at Pennington Flash. Hundreds of swifts and hirundines low over the water, the latter mainly sand martins. Two common terns still present and a kingfisher at Ramsdales, but best of all my first common sandpiper for nearly 5 weeks.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Rose-coloured starling, Frodsham Marsh

It's certainly true that I've seen closer rose-coloured starlings in the past but actually todays bird at Frodsham Marsh was a good as any I've seen but for different reasons.  True it was about 150m away on the other side of the Manchester Ship Canal opposite Marsh Farm, and yes it was often out of view in the long vegetation, but it was a cracking summer plumage adult and for once it was nice not have to watch it in somebody's back garden in the middle of a housing estate, and even better it was great to see it interacting with a large flock of starlings. Actually very few of the rose-coloured starlings I have seen have been with starling flocks, they have almost all been alone or with just a handful of starlings, so great to see it flying in the middle of a large flock. Yes it's not the most scenic place in the world, but it's a wild place, a proper birders place and a great place to see a rose-coloured starling, only my second ever adult.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Pennington Flash, visitors from the high arctic

I've said it before and I'll say it again, thank god for rain! A blustery, squally day of heavy showers it might have been, and yes I may well have gotten a good soaking every hour or so, but it was the best and most positive days birding I've had for a while at the flash.

First off I was scanning the shoreline at the yacht club and came across a smart looking ringed plover. Quite dark and slim looking, it seems a good candidate for a tundra ringed plover Charadrius hiaticula tundrae, especially at this time of year. This race breeds in arctic Scandinavia.

There were hundreds of swifts and hirundines flying low over the flash as there often is in these conditions, some almost hanging in the wind as they battled their way over the water. I decided to try my luck at getting a flight photo of a swift, hopeless as this might seem. I had taken about 30 photos and was just searching for the next likely looking candidate when swoosh, a hobby powered over my head quite low down and shot over the water like a bullet chasing a swift. It missed its target and I watched it continue on its way west, past the yacht club and towards Slag lane until it was lost to sight. A breathtaking moment! Needless to say, I don't have any swift photos to post here.

Finally I returned this afternoon and managed to see one of two arctic terns which had been present this morning. I don't know for sure, but given the time of year, perhaps these birds are also high arctic breeders rather than UK breeders, just like the ringed plover.

Thank god for rain - there you are, that's one more time.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Pennington Flash, rain at last

Photo: Kidney vetch on the ruck.
Thank god for rain! Not only is the countryside bone dry and desperate for rain, water levels at the flash are very low making it easy for people to get into what's left of the nature reserve part of the flash such as the spit. On top of that, the warm sunny weather gets people off their sofas and out into the countryside in their droves, and many of these then proceed to trash everywhere leaving tons of litter lying around, setting fires to various places around the UK including reedbeds and moors, basically wrecking whatever they can and ignoring the country code. So thank god for rain.

Rain also brings birds to flash, and the highlight of today was the impressive sight of around 1000 swifts and a couple of hundred hirundines hawking over the water. A garden warbler sang at the western end, also a sedge warbler in the same area but no sign of the hoped for black terns.

I hope it rains for the next 3 months.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Red-eyed damselflies, Leeds-Liverpool canal at Lightshaw Meadows

Red-eyed damselflies on the wing today, at Sorrowcow pond, Pennington Flash and also on the canal above Lightshaw meadows. Although I've seen them on the canal above Pennington Flash in previous years, this is the first time I've seen them on the Lightshaw section.

LBO, Day 70 - Whiskered bat and other mammals.

Image: Probable whiskered bat spectrogram.
The first night of June brought a new species of bat to the garden in the form of a myotis sp., one of the mouse-eared bats. Exactly which species is a little more difficult to say. Opinion seems to be divided between whiskered and Brandt's, but Daubenton's cannot be completely ruled out either. However, Brandt's seems pretty uncommon in the Greater Manchester area, whereas whiskered does occur. Daubenton's is likely to be at Pennington Flash which is a mile away but it is a species which feeds over water so although there will no doubt be ponds in some of the gardens in the area, it is perhaps less likely over a housing estate, especially when there is such ideal feeding over the flash. So for now I'm going with whiskered. Also last night the detector recorded common pipistrelle on 30 occasions, noctule once and soprano pipistrelle three times. So with the myotis sp. that's four species of bat over the garden last night, not bad.

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