Now my car smells of shearwater

As I slid into the driver’s seat I noticed the lid on the box in the passenger footwell was slightly ajar and in the dark I could hear a scuttling noise.
It was just like that bit in “Aliens” when Ripley and Newt are locked into the medi-lab after the nasty beasties have been released from their holding jars in an act of predictable corporate wickedness.
Okay, it wasn’t quite as scary as that, but the bottom line was that the Manx Shearwater had got out of its box and was now somewhere in my car in the pitch dark.
The air was permeated not so much by the stench of fear as the pong of straw and pilchards.
Oops.
I didn’t want to dazzle the bird with a light before release so the Manxie had the advantage over me (being raised in a dark, cramped burrow).
So we played cat and mouse, or rather idiot and shearwater, in the confines of the wheels.
After a bit of fumbling, and nips and scratches from its pointy bill and claws (great for climbing out of holding boxes) I cornered the shear under my seat and bundled it back into the box before heading to Ainsdale beach.

I don’t know how long it had been wandering around my car, but the odd thing was when I left it there, I’m sure there was a Paco Pena CD on the deck.
When I finally turned the ignition on, the Pogues started playing instead…perhaps this was an Irish Manxie?
Once I got out to the eerie water’s edge at Ainsdale it seemed anxious enough to be off and after two false starts flew strongly into the night – only to veer back east and head inland!
Ronald Lockley eat your heart out.
It was probably heading back for some more of the luxury pilchards Dave Bickerton had fed it after it was discovered on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal near Rishton on Thursday evening.
The bird was dropped off to me by Cheryl from Lancs Wildlife Trust yesterday for release once night fell and gulls couldn’t snaffle it.
Fully fed and watered the shearwater had spent most of the afternoon sleeping, while I enjoyed Common and Jack Snipe in the dunes during a guided walk.

A strange evening took a further turn for the surreal when after the success of Operation Pilchardface I popped up to the Legless Arms, where Neill Hunt displayed the sad corpse of a Black and White Warbler he discovered on a cargo ship that docked at Liverpool.
The ship had come in from Belgium, but before that it had sailed from Wilmington in North Carolina, a far more likely port of embarkation for the ex-Yankee warbler than the Low Countries.
I thought the eau de shearwater in my car was a heady perfume before I caught a whiff of this wonderful, but very dead, waif.
Nope, you can’t tick dead Megas.
Don’t think you’ll want to be keeping that in Mrs H’s best tupperware for too long Neill…

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How hard can it be?

Nowhere does murky grey quite like Lancashire.
Grey clouds bleed into the grey horizon that bleeds into a grey marsh where grey geese graze.
Some raw, grey mornings here squish birding optimism pancake flat quicker than Fred Dibnah’s steam-roller.
If they made Hawaiian shirts on days like these, they’d be monochrome etc etc.
Grey.
I wasn’t in the mood for grey though and even as I was pulling up at Crossens on the rising tide I was making other plans.
There were a few birds about – two Little Stints and a Curlew Sandpiper with the Ruff etc on Crossens Inner, and a few flights of Golden Plover.
Then a Peregrine came through and put the willies up everything.
Goldcrests, Blackbirds and Robins were in the bushes around the sewage works.

On Crossens Outer a young male Marsh Harrier flapped through with a purpose, heading straight east, and Raven, Snipe, Merlin, Pink Feet, Common Buzzards and Great White Egrets were further out.
Beneath the pull-in there were plenty of Mipits, Linnets, Goldfinch and Pied Wags.
I could see the grey seeping into the edges everywhere so followed the Marsh Harrier’s example and moved inland.
Time for a look at the Willow Tits at Mere Sands, by the feeders behind the centre.
The Willow Tits were in and out all the time, but unlike the other species there, they were really wary, never perching in the open and rarely spending more than a few seconds on the tables.

Coal Tits, Nuthatches (mmmm…sunflower seeds) and everyone else was playing the game, but even an idiot like me can manage to photograph birds on a bird table.
The Willow Tits were far more awkward, although it was nice listening to them calling from the shady canopy of a pine before they zipped back into cover.

Soon the grey caught up with the day, heavy rain set in and somewhere I could hear a steam-roller starting up.
Time to head home.

Between a Rock Thrush and a hard place

When I was a kid and training to be a journalist in Cardiff, one of the richest seams for mining quality stories (you were expected to find a real exclusive every week), was the magistrates courts up in the valleys, wearily called to order after another wild weekend.
All human life (and most human excesses, vices and crimes) could be found here, although after a seriously debauched break, it was often a bewildering mystery to said human life quite how they had ended up before the beaks.
These were tough, hard people in a hard place.

I was reminded of days past as I stomped and splashed over the moorlands of the black hills above Abergavenny before dawn today with Alan Wright, towards the old Pwll Du quarry.
I’d collected Alan at 2.30am and driven down through worsening conditions, so that the moors and quarry, sluiced with drizzle, wind and rain looked like the alien planet in “Prometheus” when we arrived.
Ravens, yes; Merlin, yes; Kestrel, yes – but not surprisingly no sign of yesterday’s Rock Thrush which had been seen here yesterday.
After nearly four hours of being buffeted by the gale on the edge of the quarry’s cliffs and drenched by the rains, we called it a day and I began to sleep-drive back to Merseyside.
Inevitably half an hour down the road, distracted by Red Kites and what looked like a fly-by Hawfinch (?), the sun broke through and the Rock Thrush reappeared in the hills above the quarry.
We whizzed back to Pwll Du to enjoy prolonged and wonderful views of this marvellous bird as it hunted wasps amongst the scree and gorse just above us on a sheltered slope round the hillside from the quarry.

In the sunshine it stood out as bright and pale as a very big Wheatear (albeit one with a red tail, orange flecked belly and lovely scaly and pale-edged uppers), but when the low clouds scudded back over it could really blend in to its background – what a stunner.

You’ve gotta love autumn…Thanks for the company Alan! Thanks for the show Rock Thrush!

Squeak checks suspended.

I was checking the 17th series of high-pitched squeaks of the afternoon in the Sycamores at Cabin Hill when my phone buzz buzz buzzed.
New fangled communications are an incredible thing – it was a message from Mike Stocker, far away on the Isles of Scilly (up to his oxsters no doubt in Cedar Waxwing and other goodies) imparting the news that Stuart Darbyshire, Pete Kinsella and Mark Nightingale had found an American Golden Plover AND a Long Billed Dowitcher on Crossens Outer over the high tide.
Much as I enjoy sifting through Goldcrests in the shrivelly canopy (one day there’ll be a marvellous surprise amongst ’em, one day), two Yankees at Marshside were too good to ignore, so I speed-walked back to the car.
The marsh was enjoying a mini-twitch when I got to Crossens Outer, but there was just enough space to squeeze my car into the pull-in and I joined the crowd (there were at least seven people).
Great finds by Stuart and co, the American Golden Plover was preening and running around about 200 metres out from the bank amongst Golden Plover and Lapwings, while the Dowitcher was at interstellar zoom ‘scope range by the time I arrived, but still given away by its sewing machine feeding action and dirty great long bill as it scurried amongst a group of dozing Pinkies in the wet grass, often disappearing from view.

I managed a few full zoom with a bit of added zoom record blurs of the AGP in the afternoon gloom, but the dowitcher was way, way beyond my range.

It has been a long time (or it feels like it at least) since I’ve seen either species at Marshside, so both together was extra special.
Thanks once again to Stuart, Pete and Mark for putting the effort in (and thanks to Mike for the long distance heads up).

East in a westerly

The consistently western winds of the last week are hardly the best for Spurn, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put some miles at your back.
I headed over in the drizzle ridiculously early this morning, pulling up at Easington Cemetery by 0830.
A screeeeeeching Ring Necked Parakeet was a surprise as the first Goldcrest and Chiffies began to call, before it hurtled back towards the village.
After a minute or two the young Red Backed Shrike popped up in the hedgerow just up the lane – well done you for showing off despite the blustery winds…

Back in Easington, the long-staying juve Rose Coloured Starling was flying about and occasionally dropping into its favourite Dimlington garden, despite several patrolling Sprawks.
It kept disappearing, so rather than spend the rest of the morning playing “hunt the Stinky Pink” I drove on down to Spurn proper.
There was a clear, if light passage of Redpolls, and small parties of Snipe were careening in off the North Sea.
Paul Collins had trapped a late Garden Warbler so I had a look at that before checking Beacon Lane.

Goldcrests here and there, with Whinchat around the Triangle and passing Skylarks and Mipits.
Slow going though.
A sneaky hidden Chiffchaff doing that Greenish Warbler type call was distracting until I got good views of it by the Bluebell.
At Numpties a Lapland Bunting was performing very well, shuffling about in the grass just a few metres from the vis-migging ranks, but other autumn staples like thrushes were thin on the ground.

I retraced my steps and had another go at the Easington Starling as the afternoon rain got heavier – true to form it popped up in its favourite garden again, albeit briefly.

Finished the day off with a quick check of Sammy’s Point, but the wind made it challenging, although a Whimbrel was feeding on the mud, two Whoopers were dozing away further out and a Med Gull sailed over the fields.

Not a bad day when you consider the wind direction.
Hurrah to the Red Backed Shrike for perching up despite the wind…
Hurrah to the birder that shouted “what a cracker!!!” when the Starling reappeared – it’s not often you hear a complimentary comment directed at a juve…
Hurrah to Paul Collins for digging out two back copies of the Spurn bird report for me (I still need edition number 23, so if anyone has a spare copy, please get in touch)…
Hurrah to the Lapland Bunt for trundling about so close to us…
…and finally hurrah to Tito and Tarantula for kicking the M62’s tarmaccy ass all the way home!!!

The heretical view

With just light showers in the strong westerly, there was nothing to keep the sand down at Formby, and I didn’t fancy a sandblasting today, so instead went over to New Brighton to watch the high tide, sheltered by the lumpy windbreak that is Fort Perch Rock.
I know, leaving the Tobacco Dump to watch from “the other side” is a heinous offence, but I’m sure there are worse betrayals.
After a lash up on the domestic front, I only got to the river mouth at 11am, less than an hour before high tide, but enjoyed good views of a number of Leach’s Petrels.
I saw 15, but whether that was 15 individuals or a smaller number of birds tacking into the wind as they tried to leave the Mersey and then coming back in again, is another question entirely.
Almost all the petrels were over on the Liverpool side, and many look tired, with one even resting on the water as it drifted out with the current.
The numbered 0-800 metre system on the dock wall under the big new Peel cranes made pinpointing the birds easy – like watching on a range!
A string of nine Red Throated Divers, including several still in summer plumage, was exciting as they sped out of the river and my first two Brent Geese of the winter came out of the Mersey as the water began to fall back.

New Brighton 1100-1345:
Westerly f5, cloud and sun.

Leach’s Petrel up to 15
Guillemot 4
Red Throated Diver 10
Great Crested Grebe 2
Brent Goose 2
Tufted Duck 1
Dunlin 7
Grey Plover 8

Steve Young “duck trumped” my Tuftie with four Shoveler before it was time to call it a day and wave the Leach’s back out toward the Atlantic…

Autumn steps

Another walk amongst the drying leaves and rattling branches at Cabin Hill in the strengthening S/SWly today, when autumn anticipation was not realised, but checking the flitting shapes of regular species through the Willows and Sycamores kept me on my toes.
More Blackbirds around certainly, with a fair few scoffing the hawthorn berries, but I could only find two or three feeding flocks of titmice and Goldcrests.
Skylarks and corvids were building on the fields of Marsh Farm, with one bounding flock of Linnets and a few Mistle Thrushes.
The resident Stonechats were posy in the Old Man’s Beard and big flocks of Pinkies commuted from the fields behind Altcar to the shore against concrete skies.

Keep walking.
Keep checking the branches.
Two young Marsh Harriers were out on Plex later, with 12 Common Buzzards, a few family parties of hirundines lingering around favoured farmhouses and Corn Buntings still happily strangling the concept of song.
The autumn crops and stubble will soon give way to winter soil black enough to crush any birding dreams…but at least we’ve got October to play with first.

07590 745 862

First time I’ve seen a Grey Squirrel on the seaward side of the Coast Rd at Marshside, today, but I think Greys are at their most dispersive at this time of year – there’s one in the garden at Dempsey Towers too, potentially rubbing shoulders with Reds, so it’s time to ring the number and arrange a “squirrel holiday” for them…
Perhaps one of the more interesting things amongst the branches though – I spent three hours interrogating Sycamores once the rain stopped with just Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests Greater ‘Peckers and Jays, Migrant Hawkers and Red Admirals as I walked the public footpath through Hesketh Golf Course.
Pretty much the same result from the same amount of effort checking the trees at Cabin Hill yesterday, with the added attraction of a few Small Coppers.

Only one Curlew Sandpiper on the lagoon at the back of Crossens Inner that I could see this afternoon, with at least 14 Ruff and a Dunlin, place looks great though.

Sun King.

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The balmy autumn sun meant even Hesketh Out Marsh was bearable today – the place only felt summer tundra rather than permafrost cold.
The hedgerows around the car park were jumping with Robins as I walked out and down the bank, with Tree Sparrows, Chiffchaff and Goldcrest.
The sound of Pinkies overhead was still fresh and hirundines zooming through had a passage urgency to them.
I was hoping for a spot of wader action and it was looking good with 380+ Golden Plover, 1 Grey Plover, Curlew, 6 Greenshanks, Ringed Plover, 20+ Dunlin, 60+ Blackwits, Lapwing, too many yelping Redshank (making it hard to sneak up on the birds, even when using the bank as cover) and flurries of Snipe, until a young Marsh Harrier flapped through and spooked the lot!

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Sprawk, a few Common Buzzards and a zippity Merlin hardly helped things relax while I was there, but the Kingfisher and two Great Crested Grebes went about their business as usual.
Wigeon and Pintail dropped in too, and as I chatted with Keith Hiller, a Wheatear was flycatching from the fenceposts.
Pleasant as it was, I decided to head over to a well-known local Little Owl stake-out to see if anything was happening.

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Unfortunately someone was having trouble keeping their eyes open in the hot sun, as Migrant Hawkers and Red Admirals sauntered by.

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After a spot of de rigeur glaring, which fooled nobody, I left the owl in peace, after all, it looked like it had the right plan for the afternoon.

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A Monkey for a Redstart

Well, that was a quite wonderful and exceptionally surreal day.
I picked up Er Neill at 8am, and we met Paul Herrieven in a cold plastic Sunday morning Maccas at 9am on the Fylde.
Sweated as we waited, then drove round to the remains of Blackpool Airport but there was no news of the American Redstart on Barra (yes, you read correctly, we popped up to Barra in the Outer Hebrides today).
Neill had done all the preliminary, sorting the plane, pilot and timings beforehand, but when it came down to it, all we could do was wait for news of the bird, go home or take off…
We decided to fly up anyway…we were all too excited to back out of the booking now.

I was however, a tad disappointed to learn that our “cost shared” flight for the day was going to be in the Piper Cherokee on the right, not the grand old Lancaster behind it, but I guess the latter probably wouldn’t fit onto the beach at Barra.
We had crossed the rubicon and with no news of the mega from the island either way still, we prepared for take-off at 10.35am.
Chocks away!!!!
Our pilot was the excellent Adrian, who took us north past incoming skeins of Pink Feet, dropping out of the clouds to refuel at Oban before pushing west.
Always like a driver with a map (or a good i-Pad navigation app).
But how hard can an island be to find with that dirty great blue circle over it?

A sneaky check of the phone had revealed the bird was still there (how did that flight setting switch itself off???) vindicating this bizarre journey north.
We had to pause at Oban for a spot of negotiation before we had permission to land at Barra, but we were back up in the air again by just after 1pm.
Paul helpfully pointed out the gleaming white sands of the beach aka Barra International Airport after a stunning flight over the west of Scotland and numerous Hebrides.
Pods of dolphins had breached in a cobalt blue calm sea below us as we neared the target and the adrenalin started surging.

We swept down onto the sands of Barra and fell out of the Cherokee by 2pm, blagged a lift round to Eoligarry Church from airport team member Michael and were frantically scanning crinkly Sycamore leaves for the Yankee Redstart by 2.10pm.
The silence of beautiful tranquil Barra was almost deafening after the constant buzz of the Cherokee’s engines, but we were on a tight schedule – Michael was picking us up again at 2.50pm!

Fleeting views of the warbler as it darted through the dark understorey were not what the doctor ordered, and it was all getting a bit stressful as the minutes ticked by.
Luckily, with just ten minutes to go, the female American Redstart darted into the stunted Sycamore in front of us and began zipping all over the place, occasionally pausing for a few seconds to give gobsmacking views.
It was glorious, just yankee autumn mega glorious.
She was swishing and cocking her sexy yellow and black tail and flicking her wings almost constantly while hoovering up insects from the foliage.
Great views as she whizzed about, but way beyond my photographic abilities and I wasn’t going to waste the limited time worrying about f-stops and the like.
I just wanted to watch the warbler baby.
You can just see her in image at the top of the entry, and in this one too…

Luckily Neill Hunt is a bit better with a camera than I am – thanks for the picture below buddy. Spiffing.

Happy faces then as Michael came to collect us and bundle us to the airport/beach, while explaining as we sped back across Barra how the yellow-topped post marked the end of the runway and we had to take off before the rising tide flowed past it.

Oops.
Adrian hustled us into the Cherokee, and with the elastic bands fully tightened and backed by a fair wind, we raced down the sands and soared back into the blue again by 3.10pm!

Bye bye Barra, wish I could have stayed longer.
All that was left was to breathe a sigh of relief and play spot the Hebridean island as we cruised south.
Eriskay, Coll and Tireeeeee, Iona, Mull, the Paps of Jura, Islay, Ailsa Craig etc etc.
I wondered whether to tell Neill that his door wasn’t shut properly, but he discovered that himself quite quickly, and anyway, the cold air made the flight back to Blackpool all the more refreshing….
A ridiculously indulgent day, but with the white sand of Barra still dusting the soles of my Meindls as I sit here, back home less than 12 hours after I set out, it was undeniably splendid too…what an adventure!
I’ve been dreaming of landing on that beach for more than 30 years.
Thanks to Neill and Paul for the great company, Adrian and Michael for being brill and most importantly thanks to my lovely bank manager (if such creatures still exist in the virtual world of modern day finance) ‘cos my account took a right kicking today.
Was an American Redstart worth a monkey?
Absolutely.