Eau de vie

As the black blanket of night turned to the orange of a rural French sunrise behind my eyelids the pain was excruciating.
No way was I opening my peepers.
Nerve endings screaming, just a twitch of my little finger sent shockwaves coursing right the way back to hangover central in my addled brain.
Over 25 years later and I can still remember the consequences of a night drinking too much eau de vie with wonderful European friends and family in the tiny village of Meon in the Loire.
The worst thing was a Serin was belting out its “crushed glass” song from the apex of the roof just above my head.
It was like a drill, unceasing and merciless.
I’ve never really forgiven the little yellow weasels for that, and have gone out of my way to avoid Serins ever since.
Until today, when urged along by Neill Hunt, I hopped into the wheels in the early hours and sped over to Easington (I know, a third trip to Spurn in a month – but what’s wrong with that?), where a male Serin has been coming to feeders off Vicar’s Lane for the last few days.

It was time to put the Serin hoodoo to bed.
I was overlooking the garden and feeders before 8am, and a short time later the Serin flew in to stuff its face.
Flighty and nervous, perhaps because of the high winds, the bird kept its distance but gave great views (no rings, wings and bill all okay) out on the moss-covered tarmac in front of me.

In case you think you recognise the site, it’s probably because you do – remember that glorious October in 2016?
Yup, it’s where “you know who” graced so many of our lives…

Many thanks must go to Tony Broom for keeping the seed topped up for his little yellow visitor.
The Serin wasn’t that bad actually, at least it didn’t sing.
In fact after an hour or so watching as it came and went, I’d almost forgiven it for the Meon incident.
Serin sorted I headed on down the point, but a brisk westerly was blasting across Spurn making it hard to pick up on much.
A Honey Buzzard had moved north over the lighthouse shortly before I got to the Canal Zone, but a big raptor that pitched down into the saltmarsh on the banks of the Humber in front of me turned out to be a Common Buzzard.
Such is life.
Yellowhammers were singing at Easington Cemetery, where good numbers of hirundines hawked in the shelter of the trees, while Whitethroats and Sedgies perservered in the gusty conditions, before I headed back west.

Galooty as ever.

Harrassed by Jackdaws, Blackwits, Lapwings and BHGs, the Glossy Ibis looked as galooty as they always do as it waded about after water snails in the lush vegetation at Marshside this afternoon.
I don’t remember them getting so much hassle in the past, but my memory is far from photographic these days.
Such awkward looking birds, and yet to my eyes, strangely sinister in flight.

Frequently out of sight in rushes deep enough to hide a Mute Swan under full sail, the ibis still popped up for those with sufficient patience to wait for it at Nels hide, rather than folks who tried to climb over the bank that shelters the marsh (‘cos getting a brief view and a blurry shot of a startled scarcity to consign to the depths of an irrelevant hard drive is far more important than the well-being of the nesting and nestling warblers, wildfowl and waders your silhouette against the skyline freaks out right?).
Ahem, sorry just had to get that off my chest.
And sorry if I appeared angry when I shouted at you, but that’s because I was.

Back east

I pulled into Kilnsea Wetlands car park yesterday morning for about 9am and got straight onto the two gorgeous female Dotterels that were scampering about the lush meadow below Long Bank.
Distant views at first, but a breathtaking 90 minutes or so with one later in the day fully justified my early morning dash east, skirting the rush hours of Manchester, Leeds and Hull.
Mist rolled over and back over the Spurn peninsula almost continually yesterday, promising plenty of good birds, when aerial manoeuvres by three Typhoons weren’t tearing the Humber a new one.

A Wood Sand fed on the pool in front of the hide opposite Long Bank and a Great White Egret dropped in while I ‘scoped the Dotterels as they scurried through the damp grassland, their startlingly white superciliums shining out in the murk.

Neill Hunt and Tony Owen had motored over the previous evening and I met up with them for two great days birding, staying in the palatial splendour of Neill’s caravan last night (thanks for the hospitality buddy).
Yesterday we circled round from Kilnsea Wetlands to the Warren willing the mist to produce the goods and managed plenty of Yellow Wagtails, Brent Goose, Cuckoo, Spotted Flycatcher (quite challenging to keep up with through branches behind the Crown and Anchor after a liquid lunch… we were only there for the wifi honest), Marsh Harrier, Hobby and best of all, a stunning male Montagu’s Harrier.

The Monty’s banked in front of us as we walked along the Canal Zone, mobbed by corvids, before swerving back into the mist and melting away.
A Red Rumped Swallow picked up at Kilnsea Wetland dragged us back up there late afternoon, although we couldn’t relocate it, so we went for another hour or so with the remaining female Dotterel, which fed just beneath us on Long Bank, as the mist continued to roll in and out.

What a bird.
Today dawned bright and sunny, great for hordes of Orange Tips, Speckled Woods, Red Admiral, Common Blue and Peacocks, but a bit quieter on the bird front.
Neill still managed to find a brief Blue Headed Wagtail up near the “new” YWT car park, and a Marsh Harrier passed overhead at the Warren.
We completed two circuits of the Kilnsea – the Warren area, but as it felt slower than yesterday, we headed back west just after 2.30pm today.

Stilt Sand, Lunt: Relying on the kindness of strangers…and friends

Working down at Crosby all day and untroubled by quality optics or camera, I still couldn’t resist calling into Lunt on the way home for the Stilt Sandpiper found this afternoon by Steve Riley.
Last one of these Yankees I saw in the UK was at Conway in 2006, so it was probably time to say “howdy” again.
Armed with my knackered work Opticron Verranos (the eye-pieces are held on with red electrical tape y’know) and my battered old Lumix TZ point and press (bound together with normal Sellotape and elastic bands), I figured at least I’d be able to see it.
Just. Maybe. As long as it was close.

The bird was there alright, but distant at the back of the Great White Pool.
Luckily Dave Bickerton, Andy Pryce and Chris Tynan all let me have a gander through their ‘scopes.
Many thanks chaps, but why are you all so tall????
I had to deploy full “Stilt Brick” tip-toe mode to see through the lofty eye-pieces!
The Stilt Sand fed amongst the Blackwit roost before it was chased back onto Garganey Scrape (site map here) where we got much better views – I even reverted to the old ways, indulging in a spot of risible hand-held digiscoping (thanks for the lend of your ‘scope again Chris).
Ah, so that’s why I bought a P900.

Little Ringed Plover and Wood Sandpiper fed round the edges too, with Lapwing, Oycs and Redshanks etc.
A splendid early evening detour on the way home, it took me the best part of an hour to leave as so many folk were out, and you have to say hello don’t you?
Great fun socialising, lovely to see you all (although I wouldn’t try that trademark Bickerton flying double heel click to celebrate a Lancs tick again Clarko, I fear our Fred Astaire days maybe over, if indeed they ever began).

Clear out

Glorious cloudless skies and hot sun may have looked wonderful at Spurn today, but it meant all the goodies that were lurking there yesterday had cleared out.
It was alarming to see “Jonah” Thomason continue his run of epic dips, especially as yesterday’s female Collared Fly at Easington would have been a British tick for me too.
But like the clouds and grey, it was gone gone gone.
Arriving at 0630 courtesy of Andy Pryce, Trops, Pete Allen, Alan Wright and I quickly established Easington’s peaceful cemetery was flycatcher-free, but a male Redstart flitted about, a local Barn Owl sailed by and two Lesser Whitethroats were giving it the beans in the Sycamore canopy, grabbing insects and rattling away like there was no tomorrow.

Sammy’s Point had Wheatear, Grey Partridge, Yellow Wags, hordes of Whitethroat and an unseasonal Fieldfare, and a Marsh Harrier circled over the banks of the Humber.
Further down the point, a male Hen Harrier went north and we had a few more Redstart and a Garden Warbler but it was kinda quiet, if summery.

A protracted sesh at the Crown and Anchor was needed, and we enjoyed the sun while small numbers of Brents and Whimbrels commuted about the estuary and a fine Red Kite drifted south west out towards Lincolnshire.
My first Four Spotted Chaser of the year was basking on hawthorn at the Observatory garden and Walls, Brimstone, Orange-Tips, Peacocks and Holly Blues were on the wing.

When the music’s over…

The Curlew Sandpiper was in a right feeding frenzy on Crossens Inner, spending most of the time with its head buried beneath the surface this afternoon, as 100 odd Dunlin scurried around it.
It “up periscoped” once in a blue moon, but the views from the footpath are so good it’s a treat to watch the waders there.

My morning at Marshside was a real game of two halves as I nipped down first thing to try to connect with Stuart Darbyshire and Pete Allen’s Wood Warbler.
The bird had cleared off by the time I arrived at about 0830, but Pete, Trops, Bazzo and I had a pleasant enough hour or so looking for it, as good numbers of Swifts powered north in the bright conditions.
A Cuckoo swept across the golf course to perch up by the SSSI ditch (a very brightly marked, if distant individual), and Blackcaps, Reed Warblers, Sedgies and Willow Warblers were singing away.

A paler Curlew Sandpiper was with Dunlin from the Hesketh Road platform and a male Whinchat was in Wheatear Corner, before I tore myself away to hear Mrs D’s latest excellent concert performance (some would call it busking, but I wouldn’t dare) in Southport.

She’s ace.
Fully cultured up I returned to the marsh and after a quick check from Hesketh Rd went up to Crossens to admire the second Curlew Sand there…

Further away

After the up close and personal encounters with Redstarts, Cuckoo and Stonechats etc in Surrey, and an early morning search for Dotterels (no joy as usual) on the mosses, I arrived at Marshside in time for the heavens to open today.
I sheltered in the wheels, occasionally wiping the windscreen to see Stuart Darbyshire doing exactly the same thing.
We waited for the ridiculous deluge to ease before scanning from Hesketh Road platform, as Swifts arced over while Reed Warblers, Whitethroat and Blackcap cranked up around the SSSI ditch.
Stuart quickly picked up a Wood Sand working its way through the vegetation to the left, a Little Ringed Plover winged in, and two Whimbrels dropped out of yet another shower.
A small pack of six Dunlin scurried about amongst the Blackwit, Oycs and Redshanks.
Not bad, and all too far away in the difficult conditions to try to photograph properly (the “Friends of Colin” would have hated it).
As usual this should have stopped me, but didn’t.

We began to suspect something wasn’t quite right as I described the Wood Sandpiper melting into the grasses behind the Whimbrel, only for it to show feeding 50 metres away a few seconds later…
Mystery solved when a second Wood Sandpiper emerged out of the greenery before disappearing again – just shows what can be hidden by the vegetation at this time of year!
Two Wood Sands, an LRP and two Whimbrel etc – a morning drenching was a small price to pay for a fine bit of wader action.

The wind-blasted heath

A splendid weekend playing with the out-laws and that there London still allowed me to make a break for it yesterday morning and explore Thursley Heath, out past the M25 in rural Surrey.
I felt I’d earned it after shopping in Staines (“upon-Thames”, I do beg your pudding), negotiating the tube system into the West End on a Bank Holiday Friday night, and getting all cultured-up with a visit to “The Mousetrap”.
The latter was fascinating as we enjoyed a lovely old theatre and full house for the who-dunnit.
The cast swears you to secrecy at the end of course, but even so I was disappointed when the yellow plastic cage failed to drop on any mice during the performance I witnessed.
It wasn’t how I remembered the game at all.
So it was a treat to motor west down the M25 from Staines (etc etc) at 06.30 yesterday, leaving the Red Kites*, Ring Necked Parakeets and Green Woodpeckers of suburbia behind, and over-taking a Hobby beside the mother of all ring-roads before walking out onto the acidic bog and heath landscape of Thursley at 0715.

I love a heathland, and Thursley is the biggest tract left in Surrey.
When I arrived, a bitter, strong northerly was ripping across the site and it felt really cold, making hunting for snakes and Raft Spiders fairly pointless.
Luckily I was looking forward to a good explore.
Woodlarks were calling and feeding in open areas, either backlit and coy, or a distant, and it was marvellous watching that swooping flight when these short-tailed bat-winged larks passed overhead…

The high winds kept singing Redstarts low and Dartford Warblers even lower, although I did come across one individual brave enough to sit up for a scratchy warble in a corner of gorse sheltered by regenerating birch scrub.

Scanning the side of the tracks for Adders without success I came across flowering Bogbean, Greater Stitchwort, Large Red Damselfly, Common Lizard and what looked like some type of Lousewort flowering out on the inaccessible bog… (botanical assistance required – Phil?)

One or two pairs of Curlews breed here, and they displayed over the bogs – it was strange to see ’em on territory so far south.
Five Crossbill flew over, calling as they headed for the pine belt on the horizon and as I moved towards the trees the song of Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Redstarts got louder.
I saw a group of big lenses camped out in a clearing and realised this was the “Colin the Cuckoo” fan club.
Colin isn’t his birth-name you understand, it’s another nickname bestowed on a wild bird, further anthropomorphising nature, and to my mind, devaluing it.
I’m not a Robin-stroker, even though as it turns out, I could have given “Colin” a serious fondling he was so tame…
This Cuckoo has been habituated to come in for mealworms here for the last few years, and I was intrigued to see how bold it was, especially as the big lens brigade were sitting less than ten feet from a series of carefully placed perches in the clearing.
Surely a Cuckoo wouldn’t be that unwary????
The snappers seemed a friendly enough bunch and I sat down to wait and see if the bird appeared.
It was an easy vigil as Redstarts and Stonechats flitted in and out right in front of me, and a pair of Woodlark fed in the middle distance.

I thought this was like shooting fish in a barrel until Colin swept in after singing from the tree-line.
Colin is a tart.
Pure and simple.
He posed for the cameras for 25 minutes before dropping onto the deck for mealworms three feet from us, then returned to flirt on the painfully photogenic perches provided.

Cuckoo overkill?
Almost certainly, but I was bewitched for an hour as the bird came closer and closer.
I’ve never been this near to a wild Cuckoo for so long before, even if my humble P900 was a bit inadequate in the presence of camouflaged big lenses, camouflaged fleeces, hats and camouflaged undercrackers.
Click click clicketty click.
I started to feel strangely guilty when I watched the bird rather than photographed it point-blank.
Weird, time to get birding again…
I discreetly edged away from Colin and his fan club and headed back across the heath, pondering the whole “photography/birder” thing, before joining the slow-crawl east along the M25 back to the big smoke.
Finally, many thanks to Scott, Yasmin, the brilliant Fat Rafa (no, not that one) and the lads for their wonderful hospitality and a great weekend – looking forward to seeing you all again soon…
*22 Red Kites on the drive down the M40 on Thursday, 30 on the way back today….