Polar maritime air mass

Brisk enough to ensure even the Long-Tailed Duck spent a fair amount of time huddled against the wind, inbetween ill-advised dives in the icy waters of the small boating lake at Crosby Coastal Park.
It must be cold if one of these things feels the chill.
Conditions were a bit more overcast than when I last watched it (on a sparkling blue sky Dec 31st), but even so, it appeared to me that the bird’s plumage was starting to change a bit – the dark “comma” on its cheek was more defined, and the flanks were whiter.
Its white supercilium appeared more pronounced as well.

Despite the nippy polar air mass (the diving duck will be pleased to know it warms up tomorrow), two of Ian Wolfenden’s Skylarks were singing away, hovering at about 50-60 feet, and mighty fine they sounded too.
Nothing out of the ordinary in the small gull roost, a couple of Turnstones probing the grass around the boating lake and just one Stonechat, but a bracing break is as good as a rest.
Two Ravens were bouncing about on the Hightown Bends earlier in the day, but the strong south westerly kept them low.


The Tundra Bean Goose power-waddled along the back of the main mere to join the melee of Whoopers and Greylags around the potato pile past the Raines Observatory.
They always seem to walk faster and with more purpose than other geese, swishing their big backsides like Mae West. The one currently at Martin Mere is no different.
Swish swish swish.

Despite the mud and murk this afternoon (and having to peer through glass!), its dirty great orange legs and feet stood out before disappearing amongst the Whoopers, where mud-caked Pinkies and the enigmatic Swan Goose lurked.
After about 30 minutes it emerged and headed back out to its favourite dozing spot at the back of the mere, its damaged right wing hanging down.
Two adult winter Med Gulls were amongst the BHGs on the water and the Willow Tit played “now you see me, now you don’t” on the feeders at the Janet Kear Hide.
Given away by its call, it flitted in, grabbed some seed, then flitted out again.

The site was as busy as you’d expect on a Saturday afternoon, with many families and plenty of children apparently being encouraged to interact with nature by screaming at it until their lungs burst.
Not surprisingly, the Tawny Owl kept a low profile at the bottom of its box.
Two Ravens were flapping about the fields between the mere and Windmill Farm as I pulled out in the late afternoon gloom.
Don’t forget to let me know what you’re seeing on the “comments” thingy, always nice to know I’m not entirely on my own…

Sunday roads well travelled

The ringtail Hen Harrier sailed over the field, coming out of the low sun that would later set the afternoon clouds ablaze.
It was hard to see (and harder to photograph), but the Skylarks had still picked up on it and erupted from the stubble – a flock of at least 50 birds whose calls rippled over the car park at Hesketh Out Marsh.
They also attracted the attention of a Merlin which pursued one individual for a good three minutes, tearing the sky to shreds in the chase, but without success.
Later the Merlin trailed the harrier, as they often do, as it cut back across the fields and headed out onto the marsh.

In the bright sun and calm after the early fog, seven Goosanders were diving on the eastern section amongst the Wigeon, Lapwing and Redshank, and a Bewick’s Swan was amongst a herd of about 50 Whoopers beside Dib Road.

Taking a familiar Sunday route I headed back towards Southport passing another 200 Whoopers a field or two back from Shore Road and detoured round to Glencoyne Drive for a further audience with the dowitcher at Marshside.
I met Graham Clarkson there, who explained the critter had flown an hour or two earlier.
How rude.
Hopefully it hasn’t gone far and will turn up again…

Dowitcher school

Thanks to Duncan Rothwell who has been in correspondence with a friend of his Peter Davey, in Cayman, who is clearly something of a dowitcher nut.
While I am by nature a fairly shallow fellow and tend to avoid posting serious id material (far cleverer folk than me do it far better), Peter’s dowitcher pointers are very interesting.
Duncan sent pictures of the Marshside bird (still present today at the back of Crossens Inner) to Peter and has asked me to share his response on the Birdblog, which I’m happy to do.

Peter says: “My immediate impression (from the photographs you sent) is of a Long-billed Dowitcher, which is what you thought.
1) The feathers on the back are brownish, not grayish or silvery, with dark feather centers. This is pretty well diagnostic.
2) Bill base is narrow and much the same colour as the bill itself, which is pencil-straight and without the the downward kink of the S-b D at the outer two-thirds of the length. The S-b Ds typically have a thicker, greenish, bill base.
3) The eye crescents are more prominent than with the S-b D. This is not mentioned in the books, but it’s a pretty constant observation that I have made over the years.
4) The primaries are slightly shorter than the tail feathers.
5) The overall shape is rounder than an S-b D, back and chest.
It’s tricky to judge, but the neck and side of breast look to be an even shade of gray, typical of L-b Ds.
6) Bill to head ratio tells you nothing in this case, as it is 1:1.5, right in the middle of the range shared by both species.
That’s all I can say so far. Photos of barring on tail and head from directly in front, showing crown, would help too. The L-b D has a dark, triangular crown with straight sides. With the S-b D, seen from the from the front, the triangle has concave sides, as the supercilia are wider and higher. This not 100% diagnostic, but probably 90% true.
The white bars on the tail are almost always narrower that the black bars on the L-b D. The opposite is true with the S-b D, where the white bars are wider, giving the impression of a paler tail when in flight.
That’s all I can reliably say from these photos. 
In any case, I’m 100% sure it’s a Long-billed Dowitcher.
Here is a list of the main differences between the L-b D and S-b D in winter plumage.
It’s not exhaustive, but it covers most of what I’ve learned about winter plumage, anyway.
Our short-bills are almost exclusively subspp ‘hendersoni.’

Long-billed Dowitcher
* Narrow, dark bill-base.   
* Bill straight, with only slight downward bend, tapered and narrow along length.
* Only L-b D has bill longer than 1:1.8 x head length
* More acute loral angle than S-b D.
* Supercilium is straight.     
* Dark triangle on head has straight sides.     
* Small pale patch on chin, so looks darker when asleep.          
* More rounded back and chest, ‘as if swallowed a ball,’ so back feathers sometimes separate and stand proud.
* Brownish covert feathers with dark centers.   
* L-b D has longer tarsals, useful when alongside S-Ds on flat surface together.
* Even gray wash on neck and chest.
* Primaries slightly shorter than tail feathers
* Black bars wider than white bars across tail feathers.
* White eye-crescents brighter, thicker, than with S-b Ds.
* Call a higher pitched ‘keek!’     

Short-billed Dowitcher                         
* Wide, usually dull greenish bill-base.                            
* Bill kinks downwards at outer two thirds of length evenly with slightly bulbous tip.                                  
* Only S-b D has bill shorter than 1:1.3 x head length.          
* More obtuse loral angle than L-b D. (Steeper forehead.)      
* Supercilium is crescent-shaped.                                     
* Dark triangle on head has concave sides.                            
* Larger pale patch on chin than L-b D                           
* Overall shape less rounded than L-b D                          
* Covert feathers gray with hint of brown.                          
* Legs shorter than L-b D, visible when on flat surface
* Specked chest         
* Primaries extend slightly beyond tail feathers                 
* White bars wider than black bars across tail feathers.         
* White eye-crescents less prominent than with L-b Ds            
* Call a mellow ‘tututu!’

Normal flippant service will be resumed asap.
Thanks again to Peter and Duncan.                                            

Another look

Far sharper bird brains than mine have already given the Long-Billed Dowitcher at Marshside a good grilling, so after a squint in the last hour of light as the bird dozed yesterday, the least I could do was have a proper look today.
Still in the same area on Crossens Inner at the end of Glencoyne Drive, the bird was roosting at first (sigh) in the high wind and overcast conditions, but it stirred and began to feed just across the channel from the fenceline, giving observers ample time to scrutinise all the features of this interesting bird.
The primaries seemed a little longer today, but I put this down to the strong wind sleeking out its plumage, at other times they looked as short as yesterday.
The tail had thick dark bars and the flanks were heavily barred of course.
The bill however still looked small for a Long Billed Dowitcher.

Previous Long-Billeds on the marsh often seem on the point of tripping over their beezers the bills are so long – not this bird.
Its feeding action seemed a bit different too – more crouched and staying at the edge of the water, but again this could just have been down to the strong wind, which nearly blew it over once or twice while it was dozing.
John Wright heard it giving a nice Long-Billed call today, and I believe others have heard it call too.
I tried a few video clips (buckle up if you suffer from motion sickness, it was mighty windy and tripods are for scopes, not cameras) which you can watch on You Tube here and here.
What folk describe as an “instructive” bird then, which is of course, a euphemism for something that twists your melon.
So there you have it, the shortest billed Long-Billed Dowitcher in the world!!!
The mild conditions and strong wind put an exciting fizz into the air, so I nipped round to Crossens Outer for a good buffetting – one of the Great White Egrets was striding about and one, possibly two, Water Pipits were with the big Pied Wagtail flock (as were a few Mipits) just to the west of the first cow tunnel past the Crossens pull-in.
Too far away, too dark and too blowy for a decent pic, I had a bash anyway.
Sorry, I should know better by now.

If you didn’t have motion sickness after watching my dowitcher vids, hold tight for my Water Pipit extravaganza on You Tube here – 25 seconds of shaky out of focus pain.
Maybe try again on a calmer day John. With a tripod.
*Should you want to learn more about dowitcher pitfalls, try this old British Birds paper.
Probably outta date now, but still good to me.

Sunset sewing machine

The Long-Billed Dowitcher was tucked up for the night at Marshside by the time I got to it this afternoon – but the bird was still just under the bank at Crossens Inner and very close.
Occasionally it lifted its dirty great knitting needle beak out of its back, but not for long – no sewing machine feeding action for me this afternoon, but at least the days are getting long enough now for many to catch up with it before end of play today.
Those that had been there a while explained it had been dozing on and off since about 3pm.

This afternoon the bird was on the back of the marsh directly beneath the bank at the end of Glencoyne Drive in a superb looking stretch of habitat, and is a fine addition to a great run of birds the site is enjoying at the moment – can’t be too many places where you can enjoy 7 species of raptor (including two male Hen Harriers), Water Pipit, Great White Egret, Greenland White Fronts, Scaup, and Bewick’s Swans, plus large numbers of wintering wildlfowl and waders, with Long-Tailed Duck, Cattle Egrets and Short Eared Owls not too far away…

Love it.

Sea frets stop play

The drizzle got more penetrating and effectively shut down the light by about 3pm, despite the slight creep in the afternoons that have become noticeable this last few days.
This was a shame as Marshside was on tip top winter form – ‘scoping out from the Sandplant provided a real lens full.. two Ravens taunted three Marsh Harriers and a Common Buzzard (you could almost hear the big corvids laughing), while behind them the gorgeous sub-adult male Hen Harrier drifted about in search of prey.
Two Peregrines were perched up and a Merlin whizzed about at breakneck speed.
A bruiser of an argentatus Herring Gull swept in over the Sandplant lagoon before dropping into a small roost at the back of the reserve.
Crossens Inner was looking impressive, with a carpet of Lapwings and Golden Plover, while across Crossens Channel, in the fields behind the sea wall out towards Banks, several thousand Pink Feet were grazing and with them, the two Great White Egrets stalked about.
The geese all flushed back onto the outer marsh when a flight of what appeared to be an old Chipmunk and a Bulldog (my plane ID skills are not great) circled low over the marsh in close formation.
The geese settled after ten minutes or so, but most went to sleep in the fading light, and the best I could pull out of them was a neck-collared Pinkie (too dark to read).

Wakey wakey Brick.

Despite many hugely enjoyable New Year’s Day bird races with great company (and great birds), I tend to struggle a bit out of the blocks at the start of January now.
Easily distracted by bright, shiny things, I usually get excited about year listing too late, and then lose interest too early – I just go birding. All the time.
I was pondering this as I steered out onto Plex in the winter sun today, riding the dips and hollows of the ever-precarious track. Eyes on the road.
It’s the time of year when you ask the big feathery questions I suppose – why do I go birding? What is it about them that makes birds so fascinating?
I’m not clever enough to answer such questions eruditely (try Anthony McGeehan’s “To the Ends of the Earth” for that, or Mark Cocker’s “Tales of a Tribe”), but I do know when I see thousands of Pink Feet rising into the winter sky, presumably spooked by the bark of the Saturday guns, it still takes my breath away despite encountering the spectacle for decades now.
A Marsh Harrier being trailed by over 70 corvids, and sailing in from Carr Moss, and 20+ Rooks on the fields reminded me of how much things change in a relatively short period of time – either species would be mega here when I was a child.

Eleven Whoopers fed alongside soil-stained Pinkies in a flooded field, but I only noticed the corvid drifting past them (bottom left of the picture above) with more than a touch of Hooded Crow in its DNA when I put the SD card into the computer this evening.

Most of the Pink Foot cloud dropped into that annoying area of unobservable fields between Plex and Downholland, and the brisk breeze meant only one or two Corn Buntings clung to the roadside wires, but hopefully there’ll be plenty more opportunities to spend quality time with them over the coming year.
Hope you all enjoy a good birding year – don’t forget to let me know what you’re seeing. TTFN.