Because 800 miles are never far enough.


Despite the quality of our roadtrip on Doris Day up to Scotland and back down the north east coast, there was still more tarmac that needed to be covered, so Neill picked me up at 5.30am today for a further round of year ticking frenzy.
Skipper Rothwell and Alan Wright were already aboard for a top day of quality birds, dvd critiques and lots of laughs.
First stop was Great Barford in Bedfordshire, for the splendid Little Bunting that is a member of a winter feeding flock in a seed heavy corner of a field just down the Ouse from the Olde English village.
We got onto to it straight away as it shuffled about amongst stubble, Reed Bunts, Yellowhammers, Great Tits, Chaffinches and Robins.



Obviously smaller than Reed Buntings beside it, it’s whiter undercrackers made it stand out in the morning light, but it always kept low, only occasionally affording views of its lovely dark edged chestnut ear coverts.
Good bird – long time no see.
Green Woodpecker was calling here, but we didn’t hang around as we had many miles to cover, moving on to Grafham Water, which was stacked with Great Crested Grebes, Goldeneye, Goosanders and Tufties, but not much else.
At Needingworth RSPB we squelched around the gravel pits until we found the redhead Smew, which showed distantly making snappage challenging at best.
Cetti’s Warblers exploded from the brambles and Green Woodpeckers yaffled around the car park.



Neill steered out onto the vast flatlands of Cambridgeshire, a landscape that makes the south west Lancs mosslands look decidedly hilly, with Ely and its cathedral sailing above the horizon, but keeping its Glossy Ibis under wraps while we were there.
Which was annoying.
We pushed on until we got to Lincs Wildlife Trust’s Willow Tree Fen reserve, where a super confiding Bluethroat has been entertaining the troops all week long along the main track.


The bird had flitted back into a reed stand just before we arrived, so there was nothing to do but hunker down beside the track and wait until mealworms dumped on the track lured the bird out again.
Some of us may not have been firing on all cylinders by this latest stage of the year ticking odyssey, as a cold wind began to pick up and the early start took its toll.


Was it worth the wait?
It was.
Bluethroats are always fab, but this one didn’t give a fig about who was about as it bounced out onto the track a few feet from us 20 minutes later, flicking its tail, dropping its wings and generally showing off as only a Bluethroat can.




It’s not often that a bird leaves the assembled ranks speechless, but no one made a sound as the Bluethroat performed barely ten feet from us – what a bird!
With time catching up with us, it was full steam ahead to Rutland Water for Red Kite, 2 Black Necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, squadrons of Great Crested Grebe, flocks of Goldeneye, Tufties, Wigeon etc and an unexpected rendezvous with Neill’s brother Barrie, before the younger Hunt got behind the wheel again to get us home safely and speedily.
Great stuff – thanks all for yet another wondrous day… I could get to like this year ticking mullarkey.

Sniggering behind the back of Storm Doris


Ceaseless advisorys not to travel unless absolutely necessary, 90mph winds, blizzards and torrential rain masquerading under the name of Doris meant just one thing:
It was time to hit the road with Neill and Trops, as their orgy of year listing began to get seriously competitive, and seriously fun.
So what if the Hooded Merganser hadn’t been reported since Sunday last? Sometimes you’ve just got to believe.
Neill picked us up yesterday morning at 5am and we headed north through the worst weather we experienced over the last two days – sheets of sluicing rain that turned the M6 into a washing machine of brake lights and zero visibility – if it was this bad then, how bad would Storm Doris be when the sun rose up in Scotland?
Answer: Doris never showed up!
As Merseyside was given a damn good thrashing it was cool and calm up north.
No wind, and the rain eased, so by the time we swung into Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway and pulled up at Carlingwark Loch conditions were really rather nice.
As was the fine male Ring Necked Duck tootling round the flat calm loch with a flotilla of Tufties.


We watched it for about half an hour before getting back on the road up through the beautiful backroads of Dumfries and Galloway, then Ayrshire, past Red Kite and a steadily increasing drizzle, until the first snow hit us at 9.45am, right on cue.
Still no wind though as we trudged through the Lochwinnoch slush to scope Barr Loch for the distant, but groovy drake Hooded Merganser which has been there all winter.



About as good as one of these things gets, it was undeniably handsome as it steamed up and down against a wall of reeds, diving and often disappearing into the vegetation.
Potentially plastic maybe, but the Hooded Merg did have the common decency to arrive in a hooley last autumn, its arrival coinciding with a number of other Yankees – so who knows???
A quick look at Castle Semple Loch from the excellent RSPB Lochwinnoch visitor centre revealed Siskin, Brambling, stacks of Goosanders, Pochard and Goldeneye, but no sign of the redhead Smew.


The blanket of snow thickened as we headed northwest to Gourock Bay, where the Bonaparte’s Gull was hiding too, but we did have Black Guillemot, 2 Med Gulls, Shag and Eider.
From there we headed slowly south east, past Edinburgh and down the east coast until we pulled up at the Trap Inn in Broomhill, Northumberland, where we crashed on Thursday night.
Plenty of food, drink and even a meeting of the local astronomy society which allowed us to make endless bad jokes about a certain duck-egg blue planet as the beer kicked in.
No, not Pluto, the other one.
Brilliant – and best of all it was only a few minutes drive from East Chevington, so that when we stumbled out of bed today into a flat calm and blue sky morning, we were only minutes away from the wintering Pacific Diver and Slav Grebe on the north pool there.
Both were distant, but cool enough and gave great ‘scope views – it has been awhile since I watched the first Pacific for the UK back in 2007.



There was Scaup, Goldeneye and Goosanders galore on the blue winter water here too.
It was the start of a splendid day of year ticking frenzy, next stop Prestwick Carr, once we’d found the place, and a Great Grey Shrike, which put the fear of God into the local Reed Bunts as it hunted from trees and bushes.


All shriked up, we scooted off to North Shields and the fish docks by Tynemouth for a showy Glaucous Gull and an Iceland Gull on the fishing shed roof.




The local Eiders were point blank, and Turnstones and Rock Pipits scurried around the dock.
Up at the harbour/breakwater at Tynemouth, Purple Sandpipers probed the jetty and Fulmars were back on nesting cliffs in warm sunshine.



All very springlike.


Smiles all round then as we arrived in the bleak wasteland beside the sinister walled necropolis of Spion Kop Cemetery in Hartlepool to say “howdy” to the wintering Shorelark on the barren ground above the shore.



Spiffing, but the clock was ticking so we drove on to Saltholme Pools, past flocks of Eurasian Whitefronts dropping out of the sky into the weird landscape, dominated by industry and the transporter bridge.
We didn’t get a chance to play on it today, instead we headed south to Skinningrove to finally catch up with the tame Eastern Black Redstart on the beach there.
Pretty, pretty, it didn’t let us down.
Occasionally the Black Red even broke into a quiet song as it sat amongst the rocks.





We even had time to year tick Red Grouse during a quick pitstop at the highest bit of the A66 on the way home as the light was fading at 5.15pm.
Finally I have to thank my two friends for 800 miles of laughs and birds, and Neill for all the driving of course.
It was a great two days.
Just one question: “Has anyone seen Uranus?”

Caribbean vortex my ass.


The promise of a plume of warm air pushed across the Atlantic by a “Caribbean vortex” was enough to lure out a flotilla of Mr Whippy vans which took up key strategic positions along the coast today, but it was hardly “99 with all the trimmings” weather.
As good a name for an icy as “Caribbean Vortex” would be, it still felt very much like February at Marshside.
The site was grey and gloomy, and mizzly murk repeatedly reduced visibility drastically.
The newly arrived two Avocets quickly hunched up to shiver on long blue legs off Nels while the BHGs were busy reclaiming the Sandplant lagoons for another noisy breeding season.


It was mild enough to coax Coltsfoot into flower, but the mist rolled in by the time I got up to Crossens, where I could just make out three Dunlin amongst the Wigeon and Lapwings, and one of the Ravens towered above the Carrion Crows as it tucked into a carcass.
About 200 Golden Plover were wheeling around the landward areas, but there were only about 70-100 Pinkies on the outer marsh.



Rattling around today a bit like the last marble in the tin. It was still cold winter grey but I didn’t fancy another goose chase on the other side, so before heading out onto the mosses, I called in at the little white chicken farm off Bentham’s Way, Southport.
Seven Little Egrets and six Cattle Egrets still in the fields between Moss Road and the allotments of the “KBO” hinterland (adjudicators have since ruled I was not actually on KBO turf while I watched the Cattle Egrets scurrying through the greening fields, and so cannot start a KBO List just yet).




The flock was a good distance away, and I left them rummaging about and headed out over the mosses, passing a few small herds of Whoopers before arriving at a grey and cold Mere Sands Wood early in the pm.
It was quiet, and more importantly, Bittern-less from Rufford Hide, but the site still had the usual Goosanders, Goldeneye, GC Grebes and Bullfinches.



I staked out the feeders behind the centre for awhile in case the Willow Tit that has been flitting into the tables here this last week made an appearance, but no joy.
All very aimless.

Mesolithic owl freeze


Feelin’ a tad mesolithic, so I popped over to Lunt this afternoon in the gloom.
Working on the premise that the site’s splendid Short Eared Owls aren’t emerging until late afternoon at the moment, I reasoned that as it was dusk at 1pm today, as if the cold was sapping what light there was out of the day, the owls may venture out early.
They didn’t, and the site was very cold and bleak.
Sensible owls were staying down and snug for as long as possible, leaving only Coots, Tufties, Shovelers and Little Egrets to look miserable in the grey chill.


One of the beauties came sailing past at 4pm, sweeping over the fields and pools like a dirty great big moth, a wonderful bird, but then most owls are.
Away from the chill, many thanks to Peter Paines who emailed me with a report and picture from his sister up in the Uists:
Peter explained: “I received the following information from my sister on North Uist:
“I have had an adult Whooper swan on the machair in front of the house for a few days with two young. It had a coloured ring on one leg which I photographed and sent off to one of the bird experts. He sent it away and a reply has just come back. It is rather fascinating as the bird was first ringed in Martin Mere in 2002 and has been recorded there nearly every year except for one year at St Anne’s Moss in Lancashire and one other sighting in the Outer Hebrides in 2014! My record has now been added to the database for this swan.”
There’s T33 striding about the machair with the bracing Hebridean breeze blowing the cobwebs away…


And thanks to Phil Smith for this pic of the wintering Med Gull on Southport Marine Lake – its hood is developing nicely now…


Thousand yard stare


Neill picked Bazzo and I up this morning and we nipped over to the Fylde for a spot of goose chasing. We arrived at Eagland Hill mid-morning to ‘scope a few thousand Pinks in the field there in the hope the Red Breasted Goose would pop out.
It didn’t, which in terms of “year-tickage” wasn’t great, but during the course of the day we did manage five Tundra Bean Geese and up to six Eurasian Whitefronts amongst the fairly distant Pinks.
A break from ‘scoping took us down to Knott End for the considerably easier female Black Redstart behind the Bourne Arms pub and a few Eider on the Wyre rivermouth.


Then we headed back to Eagland Hill, where if anything the geese were further away, but we ‘scoped ’em for a few hours all the same, more on a matter of principle than anything else.
I suppose the Red Breasted could have been lurking in the flock, but even allowing for its small size (little bigger than a Mallard) they usually stick out like a sore thumb in my limited experience of ’em.


Peregrine, Merlin and Tree Sparrow were distractions from the eye-wateringly long range hunt.
As we drove off the Fylde goose badlands we bumped into the blue morph Snow Goose near Nateby, where, following its time at Marshside before Christmas, it now hangs out with Greylags and was waddling about VERY close to the road this afternoon.
Disgraceful behaviour, but ain’t that just wildfowl???



Nice round numbers


Plenty of birds out on Plex this afternoon with 120 Fieldfare, 200+ Lapwing and a good grazing herd of 300 Pinks with six Whoopers.
This flock has diminished over the week as they snarf any grub turned up by the tilled soil in the big “Dotterel” field between Getterns and Plex Moss Farms.
Between 30-40 Whoopers were here a few days back, when Redpoll was passing over Sands Lake and Pochard numbers were fluctuating there between 6 and 15 birds (13 Petalwort nearby too non-vascular freaks.
Today two collared Pinks (“VAF” and “VAT(?) ) were still rummaging about and a semi-albino bird was with the flock, it’s white belly standing out.


Corn Bunts singing while the place sank under the weight of the biomass of Red Legged Partridge and one of the Little Egrets hunched up in the ditch by the Cheshire Lines.


Pine Bunting, Dunnington: A blur whose worth is beyond rubies


You’ve gotta go back.
It doesn’t matter how often you miss something, if it’s still around, you’ve gotta go back, no matter how hard it is to connect with.
I’ve managed to dip Pine Bunting four times in my life (including the male I was after in Yorkshire today, which had already refused to play in freezing fog for me last week), and enough was enough.
Motor through the pre-dawn M62 rain, spray and congestion and feel positive.
“Keep ‘scoping the hedgerow, keep ‘scoping the hedgerow, keep ‘scoping the hedgerow”.
The mantra was as obvious as it was necessary once I’d squelched across the empty horse paddock off Intake Lane, Dunnington, to set up my ‘scope in the drizzle at 8am this morning.
Plenty of birds in the stubble field beyond and plenty more in the long, dark hedgerow – Yellowhammers, Bramblings, Corn and Reed Bunts, titmice, thrushes, Chaffinches and Tree Sparrows – all perching up in the gloom briefly before melting away into the branches or diving down in the oblivion of the rank vegetation of the field below.
No other birders around, but I kept ‘scoping as buntings flew up and dropped down.
At least 150 Yellowhammers were feeding in the field or flying off into the mist as I kept looking.
After 10am I was joined by a few other birders and at 10.45am, as I was completing my umpteenth ‘scope sweep through perching birds, I saw a cold grey brown streaked back, with two narrow white wingbars and pale underparts with chestnut streaking – interesting, but the bird’s head was obscured by branches.


Suddenly it moved and there was a pale greyish white crown and supercilium, fringed by dark lines and a glaring white flash on reddish brown ear coverts and a pale bill – bingo!
Even without the cracking ‘scope views of the head of this striking male, the bird was a colder grey brown above and cold pale below compared to the warm tones of all the plumages of the many Yellowhammers there.
It showed a striking pale “U” between its warm brown chest and reddish brown throat.
Pine Bunting hoodoo put to bed at last.
The bird perched up at the top of the branches of the trees on the right of the pic above for long enough for me to get everyone on it, I attempted a crappy record shot and failed (imagine a lovely red, grey, white and brown head stuck on the pic at the top of this entry) and then it flitted off into the mist and drizzle.
Job done.