Automatically sunshine

Best thing about a big cold weather system seeping in from the east is the blue-vaulted wall to wall sunshine that comes along with it.
Great to be out in the lovely bright light, but then everyone else feels the same, so once I’d hunted down a necessary fish (don’t ask), I headed inland as more and more vehicles headed for the coast.
I whizzed past Marshside (even though it’s ace, bird numbers do drop with cold weather here, and I’d already checked out the miserable looking February Avocet flock once this weekend thanks) and pulled into Mere Sands, to try to crack the Chinese puzzle that is the most idiosyncratic parking meter in the western hemisphere.
Sometimes it takes your money. Sometimes it don’t.

Bullfinches were furtive round the feeders – hardly surprising as there were plenty of Sunday strollers (including myself) about, and 4-5 Goosanders still left silvery trails in the shadowy green waters of the main mere.
The woods were quiet, but it was a fine afternoon and I finally came across a pair of Nuthatches, calling like demented Clangers as they prospected around one of the many nestboxes on site.

Gotta love a good Nuthatch.

Bill please.

I crawled through the rush hour stuff, tootled over Snake Pass and then turned off to Lady Bower and Dambusters territory in the Peak District this morning.
Time to huff and puff up an unreasonably steep 500m worth of mud and pain out of the trees, and scan the larch edge above Howden Reservoir.

Up to 12 Parrot Crossbills have been dropping in to drink at a puddle on the track high above the 7km marker here this winter, and I wanted to catch up with them before they cleared off for spring.
Once my heart had travelled back down from my throat into my chest, and eased off on the thrash metal beat (that is one steep walk) I settled down and watched the area from 10am to 2pm.
After 15 minutes or so, a single male Common Crossbill came in calling loudly to perch above the pools for a few minutes, but cleared off.
Shortly afterwards crossbills began arriving in numbers, so that there were at least 27 in the branches above the pool.
This happened three times in the four hours I was there, and each time the single Common Crossbill came in first, as if he was checking the place out before getting his mates.

There were clearly several larger, thicker bull-necked birds, with much heavier, deeper bills and gently sloping foreheads – through the ‘scope they looked good for Parrots.

As a chilly, but highly enjoyable bit of birdin’ progressed I was joined by Garry Taylor from Spurn et al, and he explained that the birds have been very approachable all winter.
I felt a bit daft having hung back all morning for fear of disturbing ’em, so we worked our way around the clearing to look down on the puddle and trees from about 20 feet away.
We got superb views of the crossbills as they swept in calling on several occasions, bringing Siskins with them.

It was a wonderful crossbill class – at least four birds were obviously Parrots, but some weren’t so straightforward as Commons and Parrots dropped in to drink.

Answers on a postcard…
It was a great opportunity to compare the loud higher pitched Common calls with the deeper notes of the Parrots.
Sometimes the latter called almost like a “chucking” Blackbird does at dusk (not the loud alarm “chink, chink” call, the softer one).
Some bird had wingbars, some didn’t, structure and jizz changed as the birds shifted position in the branches – fascinating stuff.
The Parrots often stripped bark from the upper rotting branches (apologies for the lousy shot below) – they seemed to indulge in this more than the Commons…
Can someone with better knowledge of crossbill behaviour explain these antics to me please?

As the bone-numbing sphagum damp crept up my legs, I pondered – on a hillside surrounded by huge expanses of water like Lady Bower and Howden Reservoir, there must have been many similar puddles for the crossbills to drink from – so why are they so faithful to this pool?
Perhaps the decaying trees allow them to perch up safely and keep an eye out for predators in between slurps at this particular watering hole.
Why are these wanderers so tied to a single puddle?
Imagine if your diet comprised of foraging almost exclusively on larch and pine cones, just think how thirsty you’d be.
You can experience it for yourself of course – simply quaff a bottle or two of resiny Retsina tonight – I bet you drink LOTS of water tomorrow morning…
It’ll be like being a crossbill, except with a hangover.
Any crossbills are great to watch of course, especially so close, but I’ve been trying to catch up with the big boys for a number of years now, so it was a thoroughly satisfying morning all round.
Gotcha, you parroty b*stards.
(If anyone is tempted by the Howden Res Parrot Crossbills, I am informed that the access road to the site is closed to vehicles on Sundays and on Saturdays from Easter to October – so that’s a 14km walk AND a certain muddy slope to negotiate to get to the birds if you go then).


The wintering Red Kite was still sailing around between the Withins and Lydiate Station this afternoon, a Raven was messing about on Engine Lane and a Little Egret flapped through.
How bird populations/ranges change – imagine that 30 years ago around here…
The panicked bunching of Woodpigeons and Lapwings betrayed the kite everytime it left the coverts for a sortie – presumably they’re still not used to the raptor’s slo-mo shape gliding across the landscape yet.
Everything seems to just ignore them dahn sarf of course, but then they are abundant from Stokenchurch to Staines and back.

Eight Common Buzzards perched up in the February gloom and a Barnacle Geese was with about 1,000 Pink Feet on Altcar Moss.

The armchair problem.

The difficulty with the smug, beaming armchair ticks of the future, is that you have to do the groundwork first, especially if friends have beaten the path before you.
Following the well-trodden trail down to Staines Reservoir in the shadow of Heathrow’s constant aviation conveyor was a pleasure today though, as I was in the company of Mike Stocker, June Watt and Pete Allen.
A reasonably early start saw us rolling up dahn sarf by about 9.30am, before walking along the fenced causeway that bisects the reservoir in flat calm, mild sunny conditions.

Something unsettlingly infinite about this place (I bet Ishiguro’s Unconsoled bird here), with Coot, Tufties, Pochard, Great Crested Grebes and two Black Necked Grebes on the water, although they were largely thrown into silhouette by the morning sun.

Lovely summer plumage on one of the Black Neckeds though.
Mipits and what sounded like a Water Pipit (I didn’t see it) bounded ahead as we walked along the causeway, until Mike picked up the American Horned Lark, flying in to pitch down on the bank just ahead of us.

We watched the lark for about an hour as it strutted along the reservoir side, in and out of the vegetation, rooting around for invertebrates often only a few metres away.
Clearly it was odd for a bog standard (if such a thing exists) Shorelark – big white supercilium, only the palest of lemon yellow on its throat and nowhere else, and a streaky chest under a reduced black bib.
Big boy birders reckon it to be one of the North American races – hoyti, alpestris or pratincola (ta Niall) and it could be split as a separate species from Shorelark one fine day.
Then we’ll be smug and happy in our armchairs (now that we’ve taken the insurance out by seeing it).
Splitting is great when it works in a birder’s favour, but the less said about the fate of Hudsonian Whimbrel and Thayer’s Gull, the better.
Whatever happens, strolling beside London’s water supply was preferable to crowding onto a South Yorks tow path trying to will a phantom Rubythroat onto a canal boat bird table.
The lark was a whole lot colder and greyer, especially on the undercrackers, than a Shorelark, although when it took to the air, it looked frosty white below in the hard sun.
Its undertail didn’t look as black as a Shorelark’s when it was on the deck, but was sooty in flight, with big white outers.
The call in flight was startling – an urgent semi-trill, reminiscent of a Common Sandpiper (!), loud and obvious, and as it stuttered through the air, it looked big and long winged.

All in all an interesting bird, until it flapped off, calling away to the distant far bank of the reservoir and out of sight.
With mission accomplished June took us back (thanks for the driving June!) onto the M25 car park and we trundled down to Berkshire for a long shot try for the Parrot Crossbills at Wishmoor Bottom.
They didn’t show, but it was a lovely piece of lowland dry and wet heath habitat with Redpolls and croaking Ravens.
You could almost feel the Adders starting to stir in the balmy conditions, before we headed north back home through the mazy lazy flight of the south east’s splendidly burgeoning Red Kite population.

“A burst on me banjo”

Funny, 26 years since he died and my dad can still make me laugh out loud.
The dual carriageway was empty in the bright February sun as the lights changed from red to green, my foot hit the accelerator and just kept pressing on down while the guages went off to the right.
He used to do the same, until reined in by the world and responsibilities.
He always justified succumbing to the gods of speed by explaining he was “just having a burst on me banjo”.
True, dad was never going to go any faster than 50mph in a Morris Minor full of wife, three kids and associated paraphernalia, but the joy of life and unfailing principle of disobedience was always there, bubbling under – and he used to love letting it out.
I was reminded of his driving as I headed back from Crosby yesterday, cruising slightly faster than 50mph after a meeting at the marine park.
I checked out the water before I left.
Tufties and two Goldeneyes were blown around on the small boating lake, while the Skylarks and Snow Bunting, though present, were keeping a low profile in the strong winds and eye-shredding sandstorm at the top end of the lake.

Plenty of Blackwits (well, 30+) sheltering on the damp grasslands, with Oystercatchers and common gull sp.
Calmer today of course, with a few alba wags, mipits and small parties of Goldfinch passing the tower at Ainsdale, and flowering Common Whitlow Grass.
Later on, there were still five Bewick’s Swans feeding on the water off Nels Hide at Marshside.

I wanted to catch up with the Bewick’s as they are so scarce here now, but clearly not so badly that I was prepared to get any closer than the Hesketh Rd platform, where I zapped the swans full zoom in the gathering gloom at 5pm-ish.
A flock of 17 Fieldfares dropped into the tallest trees of the SSSI ditch, presumably to roost as I pulled away into the Friday evening commuting traffic – no chance of a burst on me banjo there then.


Dramatic skies, but Marshside seemed fairly quiet when I called in this afternoon, compared to recent visits.
Hardly surprising as I arrived so late in the day.
Fewer Pink Feet on the inner marshes anyway, and the channels off Sandgrounders weren’t that busy either – a few groups of Wigeon and Teal sheltering out of the wind, although Lapwings, Golden Plover and Dunlin were still trying to feed in the blustery conditions.

Down at Nels a high-flying Peregrine spooked just about everything, apart from the Tufties, Pochard and young male Scaup which continued dozing off the reeds just to the north of the hide.


Over a thousand gulls were roosting and washing on the fields west of Haskayne Cutting on Plex Moss Lane this afternoon; after all that lovely international birding the least I could do was check through them.
All I could pull out was the usual common species, but the adult Herring Gulls were looking spiffing.
Just as I was getting into it they were flushed by a Peregrine, so I was spared further gull pain.
Merlin, Common Buzzards and Kestrel out on Plex too, with 14+ Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer around the cutting, and in the distance, calling Whoopers.
One or two Fieldfare with Starlings on Station Road, and five Rooks adding a touch of elegance to the corvid flock further out on the moss.
About the most you can hope for on Plex in February, but back at Dempsey Towers a Nuthatch was feeding in the big Sycamore – just the third time in 20 odd years I’ve seen one here.
Looking closely at the lousy record shot though, it’s certainly the first one I’ve had levitating.

More ropey photography through the back window and through the branches in the failing light followed, then it was time to do a bit more blogging about our recent Gambia trip – that blog is nearly done now, please give it a look if you get a chance…and let me know what you think.

Catching the sun

With a few spare hours, a sky free from cloud and a decidedly pants forecast for tomorrow, I nipped down to Sands Lake at Ainsdale to have another look at the Goosanders.
There were three drakes visible this afternoon, although they generally fed apart and spent a fair amount of time hiding under the overhanging branches.
Pretty wary, every time they saw a person on the boardwalk they headed in the opposite direction fast, although after a time they sailed in quite close.
The coyness was in stark contrast to reports from Jack Taylor, of one taking bread there recently!

Once they’d sailed regally behind the island I drove up to Marshside for the last of the afternoon – beautiful light and stacks of Pink Feet on Marshside Two, with a Great White Egret stalking the drains behind Polly’s Creek.

Two Common Buzzards and thousands of Pinks on the outer marsh (the majority of geese were up around Crossens Outer), Rock Pipit calling (just about) over the noise of the traffic and two Marsh Harriers, including the wing-tagged Norfolk bird.
I watched the harriers on and off until they turned to silhouettes against the sinking sun and flapped back up the estuary.