Sewage and seeds

Two “drive by” Cattle Egrets opposite Christ the King on Bentham’s Way, Southport, on the road inland this afternoon.

No need to stop, and I pushed on to Martin Mere for an interesting hour with the Chiffchaffs around the sewage works behind the reedbed walk.

Mmm fragrant.

It was my first visit to the mere since the whole C-19 thing started, and Pete Morris was already grilling the Chiffies in the pathside scrub when I arrived.

There were three, possibly four, cold, pallid Siberian Chiffchaff tristis types, but frustratingly none of them called while I was there.

Three seemed to forage in a loose group, with one bird showing a pale base to the dark bill, one with the suggestion of a wing-bar caused by paler tips to its greater coverts, and all had cold grey mantles and crowns, contrasting with green on their wings and tail…

Big staring eyes on those grey faces.

Call damn you, call!

Not a toot.

It was difficult to follow them in the overcast conditions through the tangle of branches, much less get pictures, but they were interesting birds.

At least one conventional collybita Chiffchaff in the feeding flock, which also held Dunnock, Robin, Goldcrest, titmice and a true-to-form skulking Cetti’s Warbler.

Compared to the tristis types the collybita looked warm and buffy.

Sorting the Chiff from the Chaff no less.

A year-list fuelled squint at the feeders from the Janet Kear hide revealed four Bramblings, including a few nice males, and the Willow Tit, which visited twice while I was there, but both appearances were typically fleeting.

A jewel on the Tees

Even allowing for the cool wind and murky, misty, dark conditions, the Red Flanked Bluetail’s splendid orange waistcoat shone bright in the tangle of branches across the Tees just downstream from the Bowlees Visitor Centre.

I picked up Neill Hunt at 9am this morning and after a leisurely drive north into County Durham the long stayer showed almost as soon as we arrived, with Neill spotting the bird as it was chased by Robins.

As we watched it from behind tree trunks it seemed obvious to me that although it wanted to fly over to our side of the river, it could see birders on the bank so was having none of it.

Awful shaky video clip on YouTube here.

It angrily flicked its superb blue tail, obvious even in the gloom.

Thanks then to the birders who politely complied with the odd request from the red-headed lunatic (oh dear) to hide behind the trees in an attempt to lure the bird closer.

Time to crouch low on the bank, stroke the moss and pat the tree I was behind and get in touch with my inner Hemingway.

There were worse places to wait than the banks of the Tees as the mighty river slid by, peat dark and patrolled by Dippers.

The tactic worked and the Bluetail flitted back across the river to land close to us behind a pine, but the bird was flighty and quickly disappeared into the canopy above.

The fourth one I’ve seen in the UK I think – no more the CMF it once was, but still marvellous.

We walked back along the river with flocks of Siskins overhead and nipped up to Langden Beck for two rather distant male Black Grouse (no need for a dawn vigil at World’s End this year), I probably didn’t need to try to video one. Sorry.

The weather was worsening and soon the mist was lower than a snake’s belly.

It was just possible to year tick a few Red Grouse on the way back over the moors, but by the time I branched off the M6 for the clear fell area by the Old Scotch Road at Killington, visibility was just about zero.

More chance of honesty from a certain politician than finding the wintering Great Grey Shrike there today.

One for another day – as ever, thanks for your company Neill…

Can’t get enough of a good thing

Serendipity-doo-dah put me on Southport seafront with 45 minutes between meetings at lunchtime today.

Time then for yet another squint over the seawall immediately south of the Marine Lake sluice gates, where six of the wintering Snow Buntings were heads down for a further round of seed bingo, including the very bright male, which appears to have been about since November.

Just how many seeds do Snow Buntings eat in a day?? You never see a skinny one.

Snow Bunts are not a bird to take for granted and regular wintering flocks are by no means guaranteed here. Birds to savour right through to spring hopefully.

In other news, a spot of surveying work across the fields between Little Crosby and Sniggery Farm on Tuesday revealed the adult Med Gull still hanging around with the Black headed and Common Gulls.

Who’s laughing now?

The Richardson’s Cackling Goose/Canada Goose/Cackler (take your pick, depending on your age and shoe size) finally gave itself up properly today at Marshside RSPB, grazing south of the Sandplant, sometimes barely 100m from the seawall.

It made a change from the goose laughing at everyone from interstellar range on Banks Marsh before Christmas.

Great ‘scope views, even if the bird did show a predilection for waddling through the longer vegetation with the Pinks, disappearing for a few minutes at a time before emerging in the afternoon sun.

Shot a bit of video of it, which you can watch on YouTube here complete with the unmistakable Marshside soundtrack of buffetting wind and the constant drone of combustion engines…

I had planned to go elsewhere this afternoon, but the marsh held me – lots of familiar birding faces, and the male Hen Harrier was doing its enigmatic hunter thing too.

Marsh Harrier fighting with a Peregrine, Merlins, Common Buzzard, up to four Great White Egrets way out from Crossens Outer, and at least six, probably more, distant Barnacle Geese.

Ruff, Dunlin, Lapwing, Golden Plover etc, but although I checked I couldn’t get onto the Water Pipits at Crossens, where a Grey Wag did at least drop in with a splash of colour.

The Water Pipits can wait for another day.

Hamilton Mattress

It’d probably have been easier to teach an aardvark to play the bongoes than it was wrestling the mattress out of the boot and into the containers at the dump – the thing had a life of its own.

Not everybody loves a Hamilton Mattress.

But once it was consigned to oblivion I was able to take a spin over the mosses, so called in at New Causeway behind Formby, where a large flock of winter thrushes have been feeding for the last week at least on a flooded bare field at the Alt end.

With Mistle Thrushes, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds last week, there were more than 200 birds there.

Today by staying behind the trees and hawthorns the thrushes – ever alert – tolerated me as long as I didn’t move too fast or break cover. So wary.

Fewer thrushes there today and it was a bit gloomy, that said there were well north of 70 Fieldfare with smaller numbers of Redwing on show, joined by Starlings and Goldfinches.

The Fieldfares seemed more adept at teasing worms out of the waterlogged earth, and took advantage of the flooded furrows to bathe and preen.

20 Redwings with them.

By comparison Engine Lane and Plex Moss were much quieter, with a few flocks of Pink Feet grazing, but many more starting to drift towards coastal roosting sites by the time I got round to them.

Brand new year, same old chickens.

The Cattle Egrets were doing their thing as usual in the fields north of Moss Road in Southport this afternoon.

Really standing out in the hard winter sun, the flock of nine were grubbing about in the field as they usually do, crazy white chickens that seem happy enough.

Nothing like shooting ducks in a barrel, so I called round to have yet another look at the Snow Buntings on the seafront, feeding at the top of the beach entrance slipway. Conditions were a bit better today compared to the deluge yesterday.


The unscheduled monsoon put something of a dampener on the order of play at lunchtime today, pushing me off the seawall at Southport after only the most cursory of glances at the wintering Snow Buntings.

They were feeding in the tidal debris just below the beach entrance slipway when I watched them, oblivious to the downpour and Sunday promenaders. Twite were shamelessly absent, wisely keeping a low profile in the awful conditions.

Marshside appeared to be sinking beneath a rapidly expanding mere as I drove up the coast and quickly changed plans to look only for the biggest, brightest birds in the low light of the deluge. Headlights on at 12.15pm? Behave.

Next stop Hundred End then, where two adult Bewick’s Swans were feeding with the large Whooper herd off Boundary Lane.

Mercifully the Bewick’s stayed apart from the Whoopers for most of the time, and away from the mud and rotting potato gloop that is drawing the swans in again this year.

Bill and structural comparisons are straightforward as long as the birds steer clear of the mud.

Bewick’s smaller and a bit snooty, Whoopers big and bustling.

I grabbed a quick clip of one of the Bewick’s when the car windows stopped steaming up (on YouTube here) just before a single Whooper flew in to bully them, bugling and wing-flapping. The Bewick’s ignored it for a time, then strolled away from the area and into the morass of the muddy main Whooper flock.

As I squinted at the swans through rain-spattered windows a cracking male Hen Harrier ghosted through behind them – way past my photographic abilities in the rain and dark, but it didn’t stop me from trying…