This way up

It was wonderful sitting quietly behind the visitor centre at Mere Sands Wood today watching the regulars swooping into the feeding station – Nuthatches, Treecreeper, Goldcrests, Bullfinches, titmice galore – including a frustratingly brief Willow Tit, Siskin overhead, Redwing and Blackbirds.
Very peaceful, but by Baby Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a Duck Billed Platypus (the mother-in-law is having a few issues with her knitted nativity scene this year), it got mighty cold, mighty quick while sitting still.

Over at Martin Mere for the NW Bird Festival hooha I called into say howdy to the massed ranks of the In Focus team poised to feed an optics frenzy and we watched no fewer than four young Marsh Harriers along the distant fenceline before the day got busy.
The 2017 Lancs Bird Report was more in my financial sphere, so I picked up a copy – and you should too – before I subjected an unfortunate audience to my death by Powerpoint talk on “The Flora and Fauna of the Sefton Coast”.
Many thanks to all who joined me – it meant a great deal that you were prepared to sit through my whistle-stop tour of the coast’s highlights at such an early hour.
I know where I’d rather be at 10am on a Sunday morning, and it wouldn’t be sitting in a lecture hall listening to some eejit blathering on about Petalwort and Dark Green Frits…

“Big coat” time looming…

A rawgreymurky November day to be sure, but not quite nippy enough to break out your big coat yet I think (although I confess mine was stashed in the boot just in case).
Banished from the house while Mrs D practised for her next concert with the Southport Orchestra tomorrow, I decided to spend my exile up on the marsh.
A GBB was polishing off its Teal elevenses in front of Sandgrounders Hide, so the place was unsurprisingly pretty quiet – watching the brute rip the duck to pieces was enough to put a chap off his tiffin.

A Marsh Harrier cut north above Crossens Channel, still swollen from the morning’s high tide, as the Fylde melted in the murk, and a Raven was just ‘scopable in the gloom.
A check around the cow-poached mud between the pull-in and the concrete trough up at Crossens revealed about 10 Meadow Pipits, Pied Wag, Grey Wag and one, possibly two, Water Pipits.

The tail-pumping pipits were as awkward as they always are, keeping distant and flighty, but at least one revealed a key Water Pipit ID feature; namely it smiled and watched as I released one tripod leg, then a second and a third, waited while I loosened the tripod head lock and panned my ‘scope onto it…then flew as soon as I focussed in.
I spent 45 minutes or so checking through the pipits but there was no further sign – presumably away down Crossens Channel out of sight, so I drove up to HOM, to test the “no big coat necessary” thesis to the limits at one of the coldest places on the planet.
Stacks of Tree Sparrows and up to 100 Whoopers were minesweeping the fields, with Yellowhammer, Chaffinches, Song Thrush lurking in the hedgerow with the sparrows.
I love a good hedgerow and it delayed the stroll up to East HOM to see the redhead Smew, which was present, but distant, diving amongst the Wigeon throng, while a Greenshank yelped somewhere out on the vast expanse.

Not the closest views I’ve ever had of one, but no Smew is to be sniffed at.
*If braving the November chill ain’t your cup of tea, I’m delivering a “death by Powerpoint” talk at the North West Birdfair on Sunday at 10am on “The Flora and Fauna of the Sefton Coast”.
If you’re at the event, please come along, I could do with the company….

Birds and berries

For once the wintering Fieldfares on Plex Moss dropped the aloof and skittish act as they gorged on hawthorns and other berries at Haskayne Cutting in the glorious afternoon sun today.
Despite the last vestiges of autumn warmth, settling down into the shaded side of the roadside hedgerow guaranteed a numb backside and soaked undercrackers, but it was worth it to watch the Fieldfares feeding just across the road from me.
Wary as ever, they generally kept a branch or two between me and them, and even though I was motionless in deep shadow, they knew I was there and peered at me when they weren’t stuffing their sunlit Scandinavian faces.

Fabulous birds.
They chuntered and chacked, but kept on feeding – perhaps these thrushes were new arrivals rather than the usual winter flock which turned up at the start of October as per.
There were good numbers of Blackbirds in the Cutting today too, with smaller numbers of Redwing, Song and Mistle Thrush.
But the Fieldfares were the stars…

All in all it was very pleasant in Haskayne Cutting this afternoon – Jays, thrushes and Long Tailed Tits were rippling through the branches as the last leaves drifted down to the ground, and a few smallish flocks of Pinks (500 birds tops) were on Plex itself.

Otherwise Buzzards up in the blue and a female Kestrel feeding on the corpse of a Pheasant – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one take carrion before (the croaker, pre-croaking, would certainly have been too big to be a target for the little falcon)…anyone else seen ’em feed on carrion????

Mr Skulkypants.

Wonderful weather for a stroll through the dunes to admire Andy Spottiswood’s fine Dusky Warbler at Ainsdale today.
Wall to wall sun even brought a Red Admiral out to totter past a reasonable crowd of birders watching the skulker flitting around in a line of Sea Buckthorn, willow and birch scrub in a dry slack just to the west of the fenceline willow where it usually hangs out.
Far too zippity for the likes of me, but this didn’t stop me taking a few blurs in between watching it as it fed in the tangle of branches before flying back over the dune ridge to the fenceline area.
Apologies for the visual migraines…

The bird called a few times and showed well enough to see all the salient features, including that lovely super and well, dusky, upperparts.
I heard folk wondering how it was found out in such a relatively remote area of the dune system, and there are simply two reasons.
Firstly Andy Spottiswood is the only person who covers this specific area of the coast relentlessly during the spring and autumn passage periods, with patience and real diligence.
He prefers to quietly and methodically cover an area day in, day out.
All of his discoveries are richly deserved and the result of hard work – and enduring many blank days.
You won’t see Andy tazzing about like a demented birding pinball after other folks’ finds (yup, I know, I’m bang to rights there).
Even a small crowd like that today would probably see him heading in the opposite direction.
He just keeps walking.
And secondly Andy is an exceptionally good birder.

Thanks for the birds my friend….


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.

Mealworms – food for thought

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.

Forewarned is forearmed.

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!