Hands full

My first Whinchats of the year naturally decided to appear today at precisely the moment I was struggling from the office at Ainsdale laden with bin bags, litter-pickers, bin hoops (why???) and high vis gillets for our volunteers helping out on the coast over the Bank Holiday Weekend.

No bins, no camera, no chance.

Once I’d dropped the stuff off I nipped back to the office and grabbed my gear, but it took some time to relocate the male and female in the Sea Buckthorn just to the north of our skipyard at Ainsdale seafront.

The female was super-skulky while the male took flight whenever Starlings, Goldfinch or Whitethroats came close. Jumpy.

The dwindling House Sparrow colony were a distraction in the sun while I tried to pin down the Whinchats again.

By sitting against one of our fences quietly and waiting, eventually they emerged from cover or the male did at least.

Great birds, I watched them as good regular pulses of Swallows hurtled north over the dunes with fewer House Martins in tow and out of sight I could hear Sandwich Terns.

A quick look offshore over the tide revealed Sarnies, small numbers of Common Scoter out there and a few Gannets cruising by heading south, but the air was icy cold and despite the sun it didn’t feel much like spring.

(The temperature registered at just five degrees celsius at the start of the early morning count at Marshside).

Three big bright Wheatears squabbled on the office roof later on and one or two Redpolls were still going through, but my day belonged to the Whinchats.


Watching Ron Jackson’s pair of Wood Sandpipers at Marshside as the evening light faded was as good a way to end the day as any.

The birds were feeding away in the channel and pool in the extreme north east corner of Rimmer’s Marsh.

Dainty, bubble-headed and spangly as they always are.

A shame to get mud and gloop on those long spindly legs…

I shot a video, which I apologise for in advance – far better to seek out Ron’s professional footage rather than my wind-blasted, shaky blurs on YouTube.

Sorry Ron.

This corner of the marsh really is on form at present, with up to 40 White Wagtails carpetting the damper areas, and one fine Yellow Wagtail in tow, at least three of the four Little Ringed Plovers, and of course 20+ Ruff of all colour combinations, generally wigging out, puffing up and dashing at the diminutive Reeves with them.

A few Swifts scorched through and Whitethroats squawked from the hawthorns behind us (who can remember when we planted them?)

Double survey duty at the marsh earlier in the day on the seaward stretch between Hesketh and Marshside Road.

Early doors sesh included a Whimbrel heading north, four Wheatear and possibly two Cetti’s Warblers north of Nels, although the original there does tend to range about a bit.

Over the high tide at lunchtime a drake Eider steamed north over the haul road, 47 Swifts passed my position in the Sandplant car park over an hour and a half (1130-1300), and they were joined by 33 Swallows, 11 House Martin and 12 Sand Martin.

There were probably more.

Up at Crossens Outer the first winter Russian Whitefront was with thousands of Pinks pushed close to the road by the tide, but I didn’t have the time to work through them all – a shame as I’m sure there were other gems in there.

30 odd Grey Plover, some in full summer plumage dropped in to roost.

Best to sit and wait

Spending most of its time muttering in their own chuntering subsong, the Lesser Whitethroat was circling its territory at Ainsdale LNR today, but staying low in the birch scrub.

They always sound irritable until they rattle from exposed song posts.

This one was no different, so I thought it best to sit and wait quietly for a few minutes to see if the bird would clamber up to the top of the branches.

The warbler duly obliged and rattled twice before dropping down out of sight again.

I grabbed a few seconds of terrible video (forget the under exposed vid, enjoy the rattle) which you can listen to on YouTube here.

Exposure corrected I fired off these two shots, in almost exactly the same spot where a Lesser Whitethroat held territory last year, and at about the same time too.

Five Sedge Warblers, plenty of Whitethroat and finally my first reeling Gropper (albeit distantly) of the year out there, with 17 Redpoll buzzing over in two groups.

Willow Warblers back in numbers now, and Chiffchaff appeared to be on the move – three appeared out of nowhere in a tree in our garden yesterday evening.

Wish I could have spent more time listening to the Lesser Whitethroat, but I had to get back.

A cause for kniptions

Still at least 12 Golden Plover in the Plex Moss stubble early this morning before the sun rose and the day brightened.

Crouching in the stubble at range they’re enough to give a chap the kniptions, especially when you’re looking for another, albeit slightly smaller wader…

Almost as frustrating as the depressing amount of wind-blown plastics that have snagged on the sturdy stems.

I wouldn’t mind, but it’s not the first time the Golden Plovers have made me double-take out there.

Pleasantly spangly in the dawn light though, and while they were not my target, there’s nowt wrong with a field that held tumbling Lapwings, kleeping Oystercatchers and low profile Goldies (assuming you can look past the litter).

Otherwise a little quiet out there this morning, but the easterly breeze was colder than of late before Sunday warmed up and the lycra arrived.

Three trilling Whimbrel were distant, a few Wheatears bounded through and at least one Yellow Wag was still about.

Later in the day four Curlew went over high above Dempsey Towers, struggling into the wind and calling.

Tiring, they turned and surfed back west, before rallying and pushing on into the easterly again.

Beings from another planet

Block up the car windows with coats and jumpers. Check.

Switch everything off. Check.

Phone on silent. Check.

Two Penguin biscuits and a Jacob’s Club (orange flavour natch) within rustle-free reach for brekky. Check.

Do not move. At all. Check.

Hawfinches are worth shucking off your jim-jams and hitting the road at 0430 for of course, and with superb advice and directions from Rob Pocklington (thanks a million Rob) I was uncomfortably ensconsed in stealth mode 20 feet from the feeding station they visit at the National Trust’s Sizergh Castle in Cumbria by 0630 in the cloudy a.m.

Legs seizing up and not daring to breathe.

These huge yet shy finches kept me waiting hunkered down in my wheels for nearly two and a half hours before two birds dropped in, but the wait was worth it.

Wonderful beasts, but clearly too mad to be birds really, with those massive silver blue bills and a loud, yet at the same time subdued “tik” call straight from another galaxy, as if they were contacting each other in a different dimension.

They dwarfed the Bullfinches, Chaffinches and Nuthatches also coming in.

I shot a piece of video, but even though I wasn’t moving the male could hear the tiny motor hum on my P900 and kept glaring over at me with those crazy crazy eyes.

I didn’t risk the sub-sonic drone of the lens barrel zooming in!

You can watch it on YouTube here if you like.

By 0930 I needed to stretch my legs so left Sizergh and Billy Big-Nose behind and walked up a nearby slope of limestone grassland as the temperatures rose and the sky cleared.

Delighted to find two Early Purple Orchids – not flowering yet, but far enough on to year tick and get my 2021 Orchid Account open (I’m not sure you can count rosettes in winter).

Beautiful even at this stage, they look pretty weird too come to think of it.

Wood Anemone, Cuckooflower and Lesser Celandine galore in the trees below the slope, Chiffchaffs singing and all well with the world.

With glorious weather I decided to avoid the Foulshaw and Leighton Moss honeypots as I figured they’d be busy so called in at another Osprey nest site in South Cumbria, where the male had just flown in to the nest with a big fish, which he proceeded to snarf, leaving just the scabby bits for his mate.

She was not best pleased and saw him off.

Wisely he left still clutching the remains of the catch and scoffed that in a dead pine nearby.

After that interlude I called in at a few of the smaller sites on the way back home, chalking up carpets of Cowslips, Brimstone butterflies and a brilliant Dark-edged Bee Fly (loving the Hummingbird Hawkmoth feeding action and big orange fur coat).

Clearly another critter from another galaxy, and quite possibly a contender for “bird of the day”.

I recognise chasing bugs and blooms when spring migration is still in full flow is liable to get me drummed out of the regiment, although I rather fear that may have happened quite some time ago (ha!).

Bullfinches, Nuthatches and Blackcaps were everywhere, and every slope had a circling pair of Buzzards as I motored home.

Thanks again Rob.

Always one jump ahead

A furtive, but purposeful movement on my peripheral, then a large dark form on frosted wings disappearing over the dune ridge into the sun ahead of me – a classic Ring Ouzel encounter on Ainsdale LNR at lunchtime today.

Despite cresting the ridge as carefully as possible the ouzel was still flying out of nearby birch scrub way before I relocated it, long-winged and powerful in the hard spring sun.


The bird, a big, strongly marked male, with a large bib and huge white wing panels always stayed one jump ahead of me – skulking, wary, wild and altogether awkward.

It pitched into one of the pines to the east of the LNR sheep enclosure – Rouzels love to hide in these trees, undetected until THEY decide to break cover, and often perch hidden in plain sight (see rubbish pic below).

It stayed put as walkers passed underneath the tree, before dropping down to feed in one of the areas we have cleared this winter, up against the fence and boundary with the NNR (Dusky Warbler hunters may know it as the spot with the pine log stepping stones over a flooded, muddy exposed slack).

Even here it rarely left the shadows, always keeping the sun behind it as it rooted about for invertebrates in the mud, making it hard to follow.

I had no wish to risk flushing the bird, so watched it at a distance as it fed, happy to see one in what is a traditional spot for them each spring, just beyond range of my struggling bridge camera…

But it must be said they have been thin on the ground in this specific area this year – this is only the second this season that I know of.

In contrast at least one has been lurking in the south west corner of the NNR sheep enclosures approximately half a mile away as the Rouzel flies for three weeks at least now. I always prefer to see them on LNR home turf, and early morning visits down to the long grass are hard at the moment because of dawn surveying duties at Marshside.

You can’t be everywhere at once.

Apart from this and a few hirundines moving through, the dunes were fairly quiet on another blue sky day, although the Willow Warblers, Stonechats and Whitethroats were in good voice.

Leaving Ainsdale Discovery Centre at 4.25pm I was surprised to see a Short Eared Owl circling high above Pontins, before it wheeled back and dropped down north into the dunes with screaming and yelping gulls littering its wake.

Trying to keep up

So much to keep an eye open for now as birds really start to move – more Wheatears along the coast (six together at Ainsdale at lunchtime, with singletons dotted about) and with today’s easterlies, good pulses of hirundines.

One group of 14 Sand Martins whizzed past me by the Sandplant this morning, Swallow passage is starting to become noticeable and the Cetti’s is getting louder to the north of Nels Hide, competing with Blackcaps and Willow Warblers.

A Reed Warbler chuntering away in the SSSI ditch was new to me for the year.

The Ruff continue to show very well at Marshside with one right under the screen at Sandgrounders at first light today – blurry but worth watching as Little Ringed Plover called overhead.

I shouldn’t have tried to shoot video in the early morning gloom, but there you go…

God loves a trier.

Yesterday Redpolls and a Rook were going through the Ainsdale LNR south of Shore Road, the latter always a fave of mine when I see them on the coast, and a buzzy Tree Pipit bounded over.

A similar circuit today amongst the gradually strengthening Willow Warbler choir revealed more Whitethroats, and a fleeting, but fine female Redstart as a brisk easterly wind buffetted the dunes.

What’s coming down the wind next?

That’s a relief

Six Corn Bunting including two “singing” birds on Plex Moss this morning were a sight for sore eyes – I was beginning to get worried about their noticeable absence these last few weeks.

New Whitethroats in and singing plus two Greenland-type male Wheatears, big, brightly-coloured, bold and perchy with long long primaries, were moving through to the east of Gettern Farm.

Off the Station Road spur one of the ploughed fields held no fewer than 35 White Wagtails and four Yellow Wagtails, some pallid and some chromium as they scampered over the black earth.

Catch the pigeon…

The Stock Dove was happily grubbing about on the deck and the Peregrine probably didn’t notice the opportunity until it was right on top of it.

Never one to pass up a free lunch the falcon stalled and dropped onto the dove just as it was taking off.

Game over before it had begun, predator and prey spiralled back down to earth.

Hard to watch in the growing heat distortion of a sunny April morning on Plex.

I found myself willing clouds to come in so I could get some shimmer-free record shots – odd to wish the sun away!!!

It took the Peregrine just under 40 minutes to strip the carcass free of meat and just for a change the mossland corvids never once attempted to steal the falcon’s prize.

It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but you can watch a snippet of the dove buffet on YouTube here.

To say no animals were harmed in the making of this movie would be blatantly untrue, yet it was fascinating watching the falcon gorging, sending feather confetti drifting over the field and pausing whenever a cyclist or vehicle passed on the track above.

Red in tooth and claw.

A few more Skylarks singing on today’s visit (although I could have kept my shoes and socks on to count all the singing birds) and Corn Buntings still silent.

Small Tortoiseshells, Yellowhammers, Bullfinches and Chiffchaffs around the Cutting, Swallows on territory and single Yellow Wagtail and Grey Partridge calling.

The return of daft

Two new Whitethroats taking up territory in the dunes south of Shore Road today, but they were rather restrained, generally keeping low and refraining from full-blown daft and deranged song.

Good to see ’em back though.

A few Wheatears about the site and at least nine Redpolls in a flock close to the ADC, with another feeding in the willow south of the RSPB car park at Marshside during this morning’s survey, and a few other groups plus Siskins during the course of the day.

This cabaret was in our garden in Ainsdale yesterday evening, when it fed quietly in the big Sycamore that also drew in 2-3 Willow Warblers, a Chiffchaff and two sparring male Blackcaps that riffed off each other, full of hormones and duelling banjos and an appetite for aphids on the budding branches.


Winning the “daft prize” by a long way today though was a mad Spoonbill that flew past me heading north over Rimmers and Suttons Marsh at Marshside at about 0710 while I surveyed the site. I managed a poor record shot as it disappeared into the rising sun for posterity – or should that be posterior?

The southern end of a northward bound Spoonbill no less.

With Raven, Redpoll, Little Ringed Plover, Swallow, Blackcaps, Willow and Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaffs under a cloudless sky it was a great start to the day…