Rising above it all

I must have missed the invite (this happens to me a lot) to the “barkiest dog, shoutiest child” competition being staged at the Local Nature Reserve at Birkdale today, but everyone else seemed to have got theirs – the place was rammed.
Hardly surprising on a glorious early spring day, although turning up for lunchtime peak dog walker wasn’t my smartest move either.
Still, Coal Tits and Robins were singing away, several Goldcrests were wheedling in the pines and a Small Tortoiseshell tottered through the branches.
Sprawk, Kestrel and Buzzard were up.
Despite the crowds I was hoping for a few Redpolls in the birch canopy, but apart from three fly-throughs there were none about.
The Crossbills were a bit more obliging, with a group of three, then later a flock of five, bounding in to perch above favourite watering holes.
A lifetime spent chewing on pine cones must be thirsty work.

Even these southern birds can give off a highland vibe as Scottish as tartan shortbread to me – the sooner Wee Jimmy Krankie can see her way to relaxing travel restrictions north of the border the better.
I like the way Crossbills in Birkdale tend to hide in plain sight – nowhere to be seen for long periods of time, then a few hard chipping calls and they sweep in for a drink, perching quietly, stocky dark blobs in the branches high above puddles and pools.
The first three this afternoon included a fine male, and didn’t hang about for too long, but later I watched a group of four birds – a male and three females – with John Kelly before they flew off to the south east, immediately joined by a fifth bird we hadn’t noticed.

Single calling Bullfinch then a fly-by pair and a Chiffchaff in song by gate 28.


As the dawn pushes back, the daily counts at Marshside are getting ever more enjoyable.
When I started the surveys last week, most of the birds were shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, just gloomy shapes like the local male Sprawk, which has taken to hanging out on the seaward side just to the north of Nels Hide very early doors.

Better today though with bright sun lighting up the Pink Feet from 0720 onwards…

Easier to see the Avocets too, with 11 at the top of Rimmers Marsh first thing.

A growing number of birds vocalising, with Dunnock, Wren and Reed Bunting particularly obvious on the bank between Hesketh Road and Marshside Road (this is where the drainage and improvement works are taking place, closing the carriageway for the next few weeks).
At least nine Skylarks along this section of the road today, with plenty of song.

A Chiffchaff optimistically attempted song yesterday, and when the sun hit the reeds in the SSSI ditch the Cetti’s Warbler practically detonated this morning.
Its loud explosive song clears the tubes for the rest of the day!!!

It’s about to get much noisier.

I was leaving site after completing the daily Dowhigh survey this morning when three Avocets flew in from the north, dropping over Marshside Road, then pitching down onto one of the bunds on Rimmers Marsh.
As usual they had that “who’s idea was this???” look that the early arrivals always have – and I can’t say I could blame them, as Marshside was February bleak and dark at dawn today in a cold south easterly.

Earlier a calling Chiffchaff was moving along the bank north of Nels Hide, and the Pinkies on the outer marsh were ignoring the road and drainage works as usual.
One of the Great White Egrets was in its normal spot north of the Sandplant.
Before I left I scanned north and in the distance I could see at least another nine Avocets tightly bunched together on the east side of Polly’s Pool, looking truly miserable.

Far out

With yesterday’s south easterly greatly diminished, the Cetti’s Warbler in the SSSI ditch at Hesketh Road was really getting its groove on today.
Plenty of rich, loud bursts of song as it snorkelled through the reeds and Sea Buckthorn, occasionally perching to glare out at me – there may have been a second bird calling, but they never kicked off at the same time, and they do move about so…
The Water Rail squealed from cover too, but the traffic drone started to bug me so I headed up to the Sandplant.
A fine male Hen Harrier was doing one of those high altitude elegant flapping circuits before drifting off north in to the murk.
Very far out, but better views than yesterday when I watched the male and a ringtail swooping and towering around a Merlin there in the mid-afternoon in the high winds.
They were too far out to determine how much malice there was in the interaction in the challenging weather conditions.
The Merlins aren’t having much luck at the moment – I watched a female type make four scorching supersonic passes at a Snipe on Suttons Marsh today.
It knocked the Snipe out of the air just south of Polly’s Creek on the fifth pass, but even though it turned on a sixpence two Carrion Crows were on the Snipe before the falcon could get to it.
One hungry Merlin flew off to scowl from the fenceline.

Two Great White Egrets on the outer marsh this afternoon, one in the usual place, the other further out.
A pair of Ravens were ripping a carcass up on Crossens Outer, a Peregrine was perched up off the Sandplant, and a few Rock Pipits and Mipits were in the air.
Lesser Celandine flowering on the path down to Sandgrounders, while a pair of Stonechat were below the road on the seaward side.

Back at Dempsey Towers the male Blackcap is finally starting to get a bit more regular on the feeders after a winter of intermittent appearances, and the partially albino Goldfinch is still dropping in.

Early shifts

With highways work on Marine Drive between Hesketh Road and Marshside Road shutting the carriageway down for the next 12 weeks, someone had to be tasked with daily surveys to ensure the project did not disturb wintering Pinkies on the seaward side of the road…
Who could be found daft enough to take on the 7-8am survey/count each day I wonder???
On the upside the marsh is always a great place just before dawn, when many of the geese are setting off on the daily commute to the hinterland and as spring approaches I must stand a chance of connecting with something unusual (a Great White Egret fly-by was good yesterday, although a common sight now of course)…
This morning’s best sighting was a Stoat in full winter ermine – snow white apart from the black tip of its tail – I have seen them like this locally before, but it has been a long time since I last encountered one.
At first I thought the beast was a bit of rubbish blowing in the wind in the half light before dawn, then I realised it was moving into the wind and got my bins on it south of the Sandplant.
It was pretty much pitch dark and raining at 0730, but I couldn’t resist a record blur – the white blob on the right is the beast weaving and bouncing through the vegetation, honest…

I reflected on the effectiveness of being bright white when hunting in a green and brown environment.
Perhaps Stoats ain’t so smart after all.
Then again I was the one counting geese in the pre-dawn February murk.
As the rain sluiced down the windscreen I watched the Pinkies heading inland, and started counting down the weeks to Wheatear…

From on high

I don’t know my apse from my elbow at the best of times, but there’s no mistaking the throaty calls of Ravens.
Marvellous to hear two croaking above the traffic noise way up on the spire at Leyland Road Methodist Church in Southport today as I passed by.
Without optics it was hard to make out the dirty great bundle of sticks wedged safely high above the belfry on the church’s rather fetching spire.
Was it a nest or merely a stash of building materials to be used elsewhere?
Hopefully the former, although both birds flew off to the south west, with one clutching a beak full of something and had not returned when I passed that way again a few hours later.
Must bring my bins next time…

Windchill -5000

Bitterly cold at Southport Marine Lake this afternoon, and that was before the snow started racing across the iced-up water like running sand on the beach.
The long-staying Med Gull was in its usual spot just off the Marine Lake Cafe and really getting towards full summer plumage.
A few colour-ringed BHGs, so beloved of Duncan Rothwell, were shivering on the ice, two blue with white lettering (local/UK presumably?) and this one, with a white ring with black lettering “J1N5”.

Duncan has seen it a few times since the end of December, and really blowing up the pic, its metal ring appears to spell “NORWAY”, which I couldn’t see in the field.
I’m sure Duncan will send me the gen when he gets it back…
Lovely brute of a young GBB patrolling the edge looking for signs of weakness in the gull assembly too.

A weather-driven flock of Lapwings went south, then the Med had enough of the water – it must have been colder than Stalingrad slush out there – and flapped over to the edge of Kings Gardens where a few BHGs were hunkering down.
I grabbed two video clips of it, which you can watch on YouTube here and here.
One of the colour-ringed BHGs wandered by in the background.
The Med seemed to be having some trouble staying upright, that was probably down to the remarkably strong south easterly shredding the site…
When I could keep my bins steady (not a day to forget your gloves) the gull was close enough to admire its red eye-rings, a fine bird.


Doing a first rate job of looking miserable in the grey cold, 12 Pochard mingled with the 104 Tufted Ducks at Junction Pool this morning.
Nine drakes amongst the group, which wisely spent most of their time asleep.
Although water levels are still high there are enough exposed ridges and islands for Avocets to hunch up and hunker down on when they arrive.
They’re due back in a week or so.
My first Black-Headed Gull with a full summer hood of 2021 flew over Marshside Road.
I usually encounter the first ones in late December, but y’know, this ain’t a usual year.

Gadwall, the Bream of the wildfowl world, looked equally miserable off Sandgrounders, where the Golden Plover and Lapwing were roosting until a Peregrine tazzed through.
Across the road, the Great White Egret was fishing in much the same spot as last week, and a Buzzard tussled with one of three Marsh Harriers over the outer marsh.
The Merlin sat things out on a snag.

Schooled again

There really is no point in trying to compete with the Ainsdale Dusky Warbler for fieldcraft supremacy – it has a black belt in hide and seek, a doctorate in skulking and a PhD in elusive.
That said, it treated me to several prolonged views this afternoon in the usual area of hawthorns along the flooded eastern side of Ainsdale NNR’s grazing enclosure fence.
The wintering Dusky is a fine little critter, and given it melts into thin air for long periods (going unseen and unheard for hours at a time), I felt privileged to be given the chance to appreciate the nuances of its frankly awkward behaviour.
And on a chilled February day, the urgency of a more normal autumn encounter felt a world away.
The bird tends to call most when in the air, and then it flies low to the Creeping Willow, in a determined, yet at the same time oddly faltering way, its tail flicking downwards as it goes, giving it a stuttering action.
The warbler always looks dark in flight – the clue is in the name.
It hugs the contours of the dune ridges and vegetation when it moves, but when sneaking along the ground and lower branches of the Creeping Willow beds the bird is generally silent, confident that its whereabouts are impossible to pinpoint.
When it is feeding in the hawthorns it flicks its tail and wings more often than a Dunnock, and can appear greyish or very dark depending on the light.
Its bright truncated supercilium and pale sulphur vent and undertail are usually obvious.
A few Goldcrests, seven Reed Buntings, Goldfinches, Robin, Wrens, three Stonechats and up to nine Meadow Pipits meant Dusky Town was fairly busy today, and sometimes it was hard to pick up its subdued “tack tack” call when Stonechats, Wrens and Robins were doing the business and the Goldfinches were twittering away too.
A Chiffchaff was calling nearby, feeding on a shaded bank and considerably showier than the Dusky…

Seaducks in a barrel.

A pair of Common Scoter lingered on one of the hyper-flooded Natterjack pools in Ainsdale Local Nature Reserve this morning – a totally tranquil interlude as I watched them.
Point blank views of a species usually seen in the thousands, but at scope-range offshore, black puddings scudding along the horizon.
Scoters occasionally visit the flooded slacks in winter, generally when they are unwell or exhausted, but the male of this pair was chipper, bold even and quite unintimidated as I slid down a dune to get closer to the fenced pool (Slack 169e to Natterjack surveyors, “the big one that has Red Veined Darter some years” to dragonfly freaks).

The drake was fearless and kept his position on the water.
Closer inspection of his partner revealed she had sustained an injury on her undercarriage visible as she rested on the bank.

It was clear that the male was going nowhere.
I’m not prone to sentimentality, but I was touched by the way he stuck by her, patrolling the flat calm pool while she rested.
I watched them for 20 minutes, videoing the male and papping the bird to bits. You can watch a video clip of him on YouTube here.

I don’t know much about the strength of pair bonding in scoters (Clarko?) but his dedication was impressive and I really didn’t relish checking whether the female needed rescuing/putting out of its misery.
This is not something I usually do as injured birds are dinner for other dune species, and I’ve always been more eco-system than Disney.
Are Aquafoxes a thing?

Luckily the female slipped off the bank into the water to join her mate when I got to within a few feet and the pair steamed about happily.
Relieved, I watched them a while longer before they flew off strongly to the south east, uttering those superb piping calls so beloved by noc-miggers.
Great encounter and the drake was, without doubt, a prince among wildfowl, astrakhan head and all.