Diwrnod da iawn

Fleet as Mercury, the two Firecrests barely paused to catch breath as they zipped through the brambles and bare branches around the Bridge Pool at Conwy RSPB this morning.
It took me about 90 minutes in the raw cold to track the little gems down, but the search was pleasant enough with Goldcrest, Chiffchaffs, Treecreeper, six Bullfinch and two Siskin moving alongside the very, very tame Robins through the scrub at the reserve, while hidden Water Rails shrieked.

The Firecrests squabbled, darted about and hovered frequently around the pool (to be fair the Goldcrests at Conwy were doing Pallas’s impersonations too) in the murky morning conditions, but were oddly silent.
The blue skies and sun of the forecast for this neck of the woods had failed to materialise, so I delayed my planned seawatch and detoured up the Conwy Valley instead.
The village (residents asked that I did not publicise this well-known site!) was quite busy, with noisy farm machinery and flocks of wheeling Jackdaws, so it took half and hour or so to track down a single shy Hawfinch feeding in the tall trees above the marvellous medieval church, just up the road from Ye Olde Bull Inn (ahem).

I managed one or two ropey long distance pictures as the bird moved about quietly in the distant branches, almost silhouetted against the watery sky.
Shame about the light, but always a treat to see this species.

Plenty of Redwings in the village too, but it was time to return to the coast, and 20 minutes afterwards I pulled up at the eastern end of the Prom at Old Conwy, just before 1pm, more than an hour before high tide.
The scoter carpet was stretching right the way up to the “Rainbow Bridge”.
Two hours later I was still picking my way through the thousands of Common Scoter offshore in the poor light and choppy seas, when a big white nape smacked me in the eye and a drake Surf Scoter turned to reveal its full stunning black and white head pattern and swollen orangey yellow conk a few hundred metres offshore.
The Surf Scoter dived frequently and I lost it a few times, but managed to get at least other three birders onto the Yankee as it melted in and out of the scoter horde in front of the wind turbines offshore.
With the scope on 60x zoom, I got reasonable views of this wonderful seaduck – it has been a few years since I last saw one.

It’s actually in this picture, just beneath and to the left of the central turbine, but you’ll have to take my word for it, or go for super super zoom!
A single Slav Grebe, with numerous Great Crested Grebes and Red Throated Divers, a few Razorbills, two Fulmars and Red Breasted Mergs made the hunt for the Surfie easier.
Three for three – North Wales was on top form today.

A bit nippy

The Common Gulls began circling as if the eejit slowly freezing on the dunes was potential carrion.
I wasn’t, but a merciless northerly breeze that picked up during a seawatch at Ainsdale over the falling tide this afternoon really put an edge on proceedings.
Although not a large tide, the light was good so I ‘scoped out to the Lennox Rig from 1.30-3.45pm.
Later in the afternoon the sinking sun splashed white light onto the underwings of a few flyby scoters, which was diverting, but I was not lucky enough to pick a genuine Velvet out there today.
Small parties of Common Scoter were scattered right the way down the coast towards Formby, but all too distant to work through properly (situation normal).
A few Red Throated Divers and Great Crested Grebes dived amongst the black scotery blobs, although I probably missed others as many were dozing on the swell, huddled up against the cold.
Bird of the day had to be the winter plumage Great Northern Diver that tanked past and pitched down offshore in line with the yellow Zealandia marker buoy.
Good ‘scope views, but it kept on diving, heading farther out every time it surfaced, until my watering eyes lost it to the waves.
Not an annual bird for me on the coast by any means.

Ainsdale, 1/12/19, 1330-1545:

Common Scoter 4,000+
Red Breasted Merganser 1
Red Throated Diver 7
Great Northern Diver 1
Great Crested Grebe 11
Shelduck 3

Beast

“Lovely to see you, how are you John?”
“Superb thanks, I snagged some Grey Seal rough sex and a Pomarine Skua gorging on placentas on HD video on the way over this morning.”
Admittedly not the sort of conversation you have every day with your mother-in-law, but it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.
The plan today was simple – sneak over to the east pre-rush hour for a visit to Donna Nook to catch-up with the long-staying Pom Skua, then head back north along the coast to pick up my in-laws and bring them across to Dempsey Towers for a doubtless virtuoso performance by Mrs D with the Southport Orchestra this weekend.
I successfully managed to skirt the M62 commuter chaos at Manchester and Leeds despite zero visibility spray, but the wheels fell off as I headed south through Lincolnshire to be confronted by a closed A16 and after prospecting for alternative routes through a number of rural communities (you’ve all seen Villages of the Damned like these on countless Hammer horrors from the 60s and 70s – quaint cottages, tempting pubs and always, always, ALWAYS something very nasty in the cellar), the tarmac took me back into the drizzly maw of Grimsby just in time for RUSH HOUR.
Before I knew it, I was crawling along with Harry the Haddock, Cap’n Birdseye and all the other denizens of the legendary fishing port.
And it was raining. And I’d managed to spill an entire beaker of hot coffee into my lap as I stop-started up the road at a snail’s pace. And it was raining.
I hoped the Pom was worth it.

Luckily it was – the moans, bleats and haunting wails of Donna Nook’s Grey Seals (489 bulls, 1629 cows and 1554 pups at least so far this season seal fans) drifted on the wind over the saturated Lincolnshire flatlands as I squelched onto the coast, stinking of stale coffee and traffic jams.
The adult winter Pom was busy preening the gore of countless seal placentas off its feathers.
Even allowing for the trashed, moulting state of its plumage and gammy leg, it still ruled Donna Nook, patrolling the marsh on the look-out for another easy meal, while the RAF’s helicopters dropped flares during manoeuvres, and Pied Wags, Skylarks, Turnstones, Rock Pipit and Twite buzzed past.
Brent Geese and Shelduck waddled about on the gloomy creeks.

The Pom was an absolute beast – it pitched down right in front of me to scoff an abandoned placenta just a few feet away.

I shot a spot of rubbish video in frank appraisal of its questionable table manners, which you can watch here and for those with weaker stomachs, footage of it preening in the grey morning half-light here.
And for something a bit more top shelf, I pointed the P900 at some overly amorous Grey Seals – anyone know how to overdub some Marvin Gaye onto that?
It was as if “From Here to Eternity” was filmed in Lincolnshire.
Parental guidance necessary without doubt, but I suppose today’s life lesson was that while it will always be rush hour somewhere, viscera munching Poms are few and far between, so justify some extra effort.

Grey days

Another day misty, murky and dismal enough to suck the sunshine out of a male Yellowhammer (and it did), a November trend I hope ends soon. Yup, dreich is not the best.
Yesterday wasn’t much better, although a Woodcock clattering across the road in front of me on Downholland Moss was good, before it pitched down into the stubble, its big black eye peering out at me through the stems.
I managed a record shot, which I successfully killed when I accidently wiped my SD card last night while trying to pap a Red Fox that has been visiting Dempsey Towers – d’oh!!!
Woodcock pix lost, and just a blurry fox video as consolation…
Earlier in the day spent a bit of time working through geese flocks, and while the big numbers were on Altcar Moss behind Great Altcar village, with about 3-4,000 birds, they were always a field too far back for me to check through effectively in the gloom.
Many geese were caked in rich black Lancashire earth having been rummaging in the muddy fields, making picking up yellow legs or Beany bills difficult.
Round two and I drove over to Martin Mere today for a spot of In Focus business, with the Southport Twite flock little more than bouncy silhouettes as I sped along the Marine Drive north of the pier.
Once the deal was done at In Focus, I backed nervously out when Andy Bunting started to get a bit too excited over a Swan Goose that had just arrived on the main lagoon.

That’s just wrong on so many levels Andy…
On an identically gloomy day this earlier week I’d watched Willow Tit, Nuthatch and Siskin zipping around the feeders at the Janet Kear, but I didn’t fancy a repeat performance, so headed over to Mere Sands.
Nine Goosander (two drakes and seven ducks) elegant as ever on the cold, still grey-green water.
All the usual woodland sp there today – Bullfinchy, with added Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Nuthatch – but what light there was had faded by 2pm, with the reserve as dull, dark
and damp as only a wet deciduous woodland can be in winter … dank epitomised.

Sixes and sevens

The air was gin clear and visibility was just peachy after a frost today, so spending an hour or two ‘scoping the outer marsh from the northern slopes of the Sandplant at Marshside seemed sensible.
Two Common Buzzards, three Marsh Harriers, two Kestrels, at least three Merlin, one Peregrine and a fine adult male Hen Harrier justified frozen toes, but where, oh where was my Sprawk???
Missed the requisite “Marshside Seven” for the want of the common accipiter, so had to make do with six species of raptor before the cold started to creep in again after 2pm.
Couple of Ravens out there, hassling the buzzards, plenty of Pink Feet, egrets and chirrupping Skylarks.
Most of the raptors kept their distance, but there will be other winter days for them to come closer…

Stealing the last of the light

A text from Pete Allen about 11 Snow Buntings on Ainsdale Beach was enough to snap me out of my November dreich gloom this afternoon.
Pete and Chris Fyles had found the birds while diligently conducting their WeBS count, and with an hour or so of light left I hauled on me twitching troosers (unfortunately not waterproof) and headed up the beach north of Shore Road.
Thanks for the heads up fellas.
The flock was feeding along the tideline about 400m north of the beach entrance, off the Green Beach, but ranged around.

I was delighted to see two sootier young birds with them – the first time I’ve encountered this plumage in a long time on our coast, and in the fading afternoon light these two birds really stood out from the rest of the group.
At least three males and possibly six females, but I’d like to have another look at them in better light conditions assuming they stick around.
I walked 50 metres ahead of the birds on the tideline after relocating them, then crouched down so they could trundle on past me.
This meant they were not disturbed, and I could get great views and thoroughly soaked kecks – the beach is a bit cold and damp in winter, who knew???
In between the lovely typical Snow Bunting trilling calls of this enchanting species, they uttered a few sharp single note calls – not sure I’ve heard them do that before (you can just about hear it on the second of my two short videos)…
Several shaky videos and a host of ropey pictures later I left the birds feeding along the tideline just before 4pm.
You can watch the vids here and here

The flock melted into the tideline thanks to their perfect camouflage, but moved out onto the open beach once or twice when walkers got a bit close (thanks to the dog walkers who diverted around the birds when they saw what I was doing),
They quickly returned to the high tide strandline at the top of the beach once folk passed by.

It’s the biggest flock I can remember seeing on our coastline in quite awhile – funny we were only talking about hopes for a Snow Bunting season during my Green Sefton presentation at Martin Mere yesterday.
With four seen at Hightown, two at Cabin Hill, one at Lifeboat Rd and two at Birkdale so far this winter, then this group (plenty of room for overlap of course), it may be a good year for them…

Drying out

Clear blue skies and gently warming sun were welcome after the recent November dreich, but it did mean the Scaup on the Junction Pool was little more than a dozing bubble-headed silhouette.
It seemed happy enough bobbing about amongst the Tufties, occasionally waking up to reveal its big white forehead, even with the sun behind it on a crisp Marshside morning, and a dusting of snow on the Lakeland peaks off to the north west.

A stroll around the Sandplant revealed two or three Goldcrests, Robins, Wrens and a Song Thrush, while a bit further out a Merlin was drying out its drenched plumage in the morning sun on a favoured perch.
I watched it for an hour or so, when it took flight once or twice, mainly to chase off another Merlin, but it always came back to its perch – lovely scope views, if a bit distant.
I tried videoing it, but it was too far away really. I am however very proud of capturing the typical Marshside motoring soundtrack… You can watch and hear the risible results here.
Nice bird though – it’s always good when you can count the number of tail bars…

Between 3 and 5 Marsh Harriers up over the outer marsh, with Buzzards, Sprawk and Kestrel, but I was so engrossed in the Merlin I failed to connect with the Hen Harrier(s?) and Peregrine out there today.
Cattle Egret amongst the coos as usual, and Crossens Outer had a good roost of Golden Plover, with Lapwing, Wigeon, harassing Marsh Harrier and what sounded like a Rock Pipit above the traffic.

Context

For all their high northern glamour and wild, haunting calls, Whoopers are fairly easy to connect with in our neck of the woods (or rather marshes and farmland) at this time of year.
They can still be impressive though, and that was the case today as Ian Wolfenden and I watched four coming in on high from the west, dropping over Liverpool Bay to sweep majestically into Crosby Coastal Park.
I wonder how long ago they left Iceland?
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered Whoopers here before, but Ian saw seven last week too.
We were both surprised when these wildest of swans planed onto the small boating lake, albeit briefly, before taking to the air again, flapping to gain height as they headed over us calling away, like a quartet of albino Lancaster bombers.

Against the relatively urban backdrop, out of context, their calls sounded all the wilder. Great birds.

As I checked an area to the north of the marine lake for a potential winter management project, 5-6 Corn Buntings “tic tic tic-ed” past a few times, back for the winter, and 3-5 Stonechats were in the low dunes.
The colder weather today saw more finches arriving on the coast – groups of Chaffinches were dropping into the dunes at Ainsdale, and called overhead at Crosby.
One of the local Ravens was getting hassle from Carrion Crows and Starling numbers were increasing on the open grassland.
A few of Ian’s Skylarks were still feeding on Sea Holly seeds, but when they are doing this they can be as difficult to spot and skulky as Jack Snipe, as they creep about low to the petrified remains of the plants, before chirrupping up into the cold air.

Slippery customer

Finally got some good views of the Common Seal that has been hanging around the Alt estuary at Hightown for over a year during my lunch-break yesterday.
The beastie was fishing at the mouth of the Alt, steering into the current over the high tide, and I was able to watch it fairly closely as I used the reeds at the edge of the Alt for cover.

I’ve only seen two on the Sefton coast before, but given that they show up in the haul out at Hilbre amongst the Atlantic Greys sometimes, I do wonder if they are overlooked here.
Perhaps not every blob bobbing about offshore is a Grey…
Wonder where this one came from originally?
Christened “Slippy” by locals (it hauls out on the sailing club slipway sometimes), it seems happy enough, but the nearest breeding sites appear to be over at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland and Scotland…

The Birds of Darbyshire.

Before you ask – yes, this pale blob is the best picture I could get of Stuart Darbyshire’s White Rumped Sandpiper at Banks Marsh today. It was MILES away!!!
But given the great man had achieved the not inconsiderable feat of finding three Yankees on the Ribble estuary over the last few days (the sandpiper, American Golden Plover and American Wigeon), the least I could do was go out and have a look for them once I got a free day.
Truly excellent work Stuart.
It was a glorious morning – Crossens Outer Marsh was stacked to the gunnels with waders over the high tide – Golden and Grey Plovers, Lapwings, Knot, Dunlin, Redshank – while three Marsh Harriers quartered the estuary further out and Whooper Swans winged in, calling in the crisp, cool air.
Mark Nightingale and Pete Kinsella were already scanning the spectacle as I arrived.
Nine Cattle Egrets flapped off towards Banks, and I followed them.
I paused to admire two Greenland Whitefronts in with Whoopers on the track down to Old Hollow, before ‘scoping the marsh for the next few hours.

The whitefronts dropped onto the marsh for a bathe before heading back out onto the fields with the swans, and Peregrine and Merlin were keeping everyone on their toes.
Up to 30 Fieldfares were around the farm, and 19-20 Twite wheezed in to perch on the fenceline.

The sandpiper kept a low profile for an hour or two before finally popping up in the company of a Dunlin almost at the back of the splashes.
The bird was so far away I used Blackpool Tower as a marker to get folk onto it.
Serious peep pain.
It seemed a bit smaller than the Dunlin, but would have been impossible without good light and the ‘scope on full zoom.
Mercifully the bird flicked across a channel twice while feeding, showing off its white arse, and while I strained my eyes to follow it, occasionally I could just make out its shorter bill, and more attentuated appearance.
Just.
A shame it didn’t come closer – it has behaved better at other times apparently.
A flock of 12 seedy-looking Egyptian Geese here were a surreal surprise – how long have they been around???

They kept their distance, loafing about near a herd of Canadas for most of the session.
Shady, but it’s the first time I can remember seeing this species on the estuary.
Two Great White Egrets, five Goosander and two more Marsh Harriers added to this most agreeable scene.
The birds are often distant at Banks, but there is always plenty to see…