Bird of the day today for me was probably the pot-bellied Woodcock that came clattering over the seawall on the south side of Southport Pier, before flapping across my windscreen and away over the Vue cinema, as I drove up towards Marshside.
I’m not sure who was more startled, the Woodcock or me, but there’s never a cap to throw when you really need one is there?
Equally pleasant was the good numbers of Skylarks behind the sandplant.
I know it’s all relative and there were many more wintering a few decades ago, but it still felt mighty fine to have them chirrupping all around me against the blue sky – marvellous birds.
Exultations of them were rising from the saltmarsh all over the place in the afternoon sun as I ‘scoped the estuary.
Two or three young Marsh Harriers further out, high-flying and appearing to spook everything just for fun, while a Peregrine seemed to be taking things a bit more seriously over Crossens Inner (too far away to see if it was your big brute Ron), and a dashing Merlin sat up for the Sandgrounders’ crowd.
Common Buzzard and Kestrel too, but no Hen Harriers during my visit.
Egrets all present and correct – one Great, five Cattle Egrets (yup, garde-boeuf is defo a better name) and Littles everywhere.
Mixed feelings after witnessing the Pied Wheatear’s enforced diet at Meols, even if it was a fun morning.
I’d coaxed two of the more senior members of the old unit out from under their tartan rugs today, eliminated Pied Wagtail as a confusion species and reassured ’em that even though we were going over the water, we were actually driving under it….
When I pulled up on the Wirral a semi-circle of 50-odd folk were staring at an empty pavement, but about ten minutes later the Pied Wheatear materialised on the seawall, then dropped down to feed at our feet – on mealworms.
The things seem to be used everywhere now – the wheatear was occasionally gagging (how many mealworms can one Pied Wheatear eat?) just like the Stinky Pink did in St Helens before it was totally sprawked.
Was the starling a sitting duck as it was drawn to the top of the alley wall by a pile of the wrigglers dumped there?
I wasn’t surprised when the wheatear started to drink from a puddle at our feet, the bird looked so plump it needed something to wash the mealworms down with.
It was so full it had to take a deep breath every time it tried to flick back up onto the seawall.
It all felt a bit crap to be honest – I certainly enjoyed seeing the rare so close and it has been a long while since my last encounter with Pied Wheatear, and I understand folk want to take pictures (even if they are all the same as everyone else’s), but do you really need to bait a bird that was apparently very approachable in the first place?
I’m not a photographer – any halfwit can get images like these with a point and press when a bird is this close – but sometimes a twitch just doesn’t feel much like birding anymore.
It could of course be argued that twitching isn’t the same thing as birding anyway, but that’s a whole new can of mealworms.
One scan around the crowd revealed 48 people taking photographs of the bird and just one watching it through bins.
Thing is though, the garden at Dempsey Towers is filled with fatballs, sunflower hearts, nyger seed, peanuts etc etc so is this artificial feeding just as perilous to passing passerines if predators take advantage?
Maybe, maybe not.
So what’s the problem with baiting a rare?
For me its probably about altering a bird’s behaviour just to get a photograph, which is not really the same thing as feeding birds in a garden.
It doesn’t feel right, but I’m not sure I can explain why it feels so wrong…
Is it more to do with the changing nature of birding now?
Why do images on social media seem as important as being able to actually separate first winter Black Eared and Pied Wheatears…?
And yet there I was blatting away with my P900…
I once fed a spicy sausage to a Siberian Jay up on Valtavaara Ridge – was that wrong?
And many visitors to Mindo in Ecuador (myself included) happily join the Paz brothers for an antpitta tick-fest fuelled by regular feeding…
I thought I would discuss these weighty matters with m’learned friend Trops (there he is, third from left), but as the horde encircled the wheatear like the Lakota and Cheyenne closed in on Custer at the Little Big Horn, he was too busy searching for vismig round the Rings of Saturn…
It was time to go home.
Let he or she who is without sin cast the first mealworm.
My mind had drifted back to summer, to Ringlet and Purple Hairstreak butterflies, as I turned into the first big firebreak at the northern end of Ainsdale NNR and the Great Grey Shrike came swooping along over the woodland edge and out of sight over the canopy.
Its long tail, black mask and white wingflash stood out as it whizzed by, off and away about its murderous business, looking as pale and dashing as ever, despite the murky light as it crossed my path at 11.30am.
Andy Spottiswood had watched the shrike earlier this morning out on the seaward edge of the pines, where the Wryneck lurked a few autumns ago.
Even then he had described it as mobile and flighty, but his text had lured me down to the reserve for an autumn stroll nonetheless.
A brief audience with a Great Grey is better than nothing, although I was hoping for more than flight views.
The shrike gave the impression of moving inland, so for the next two hours I ‘scoped the fields between Pinfold Lane, RAF Woodvale and Formby bypass, I checked around Formby Hall Golf Club, North Moss Lane and I even gave Plex Moss a go.
Now my mind was drifting back to wintering birds at the end of Fisherman’s Path – or behind Formby Hall bazillions of years ago – then the more recent visitations at Cabin Hill and Marshside.
There’s a lot of places for a Great Grey Shrike to disappear out there though – and that’s just what it did.
No further sign as the November rain crept in and I headed for home.
The shrike could just as easily have swung back towards the dunes when I lost it over the pines I suppose – or it could have kept on flying further inland and away away away.
Win some, lose some!