Sun King.

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The balmy autumn sun meant even Hesketh Out Marsh was bearable today – the place only felt summer tundra rather than permafrost cold.
The hedgerows around the car park were jumping with Robins as I walked out and down the bank, with Tree Sparrows, Chiffchaff and Goldcrest.
The sound of Pinkies overhead was still fresh and hirundines zooming through had a passage urgency to them.
I was hoping for a spot of wader action and it was looking good with 380+ Golden Plover, 1 Grey Plover, Curlew, 6 Greenshanks, Ringed Plover, 20+ Dunlin, 60+ Blackwits, Lapwing, too many yelping Redshank (making it hard to sneak up on the birds, even when using the bank as cover) and flurries of Snipe, until a young Marsh Harrier flapped through and spooked the lot!

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Sprawk, a few Common Buzzards and a zippity Merlin hardly helped things relax while I was there, but the Kingfisher and two Great Crested Grebes went about their business as usual.
Wigeon and Pintail dropped in too, and as I chatted with Keith Hiller, a Wheatear was flycatching from the fenceposts.
Pleasant as it was, I decided to head over to a well-known local Little Owl stake-out to see if anything was happening.

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Unfortunately someone was having trouble keeping their eyes open in the hot sun, as Migrant Hawkers and Red Admirals sauntered by.

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After a spot of de rigeur glaring, which fooled nobody, I left the owl in peace, after all, it looked like it had the right plan for the afternoon.

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A Monkey for a Redstart

Well, that was a quite wonderful and exceptionally surreal day.
I picked up Er Neill at 8am, and we met Paul Herrieven in a cold plastic Sunday morning Maccas at 9am on the Fylde.
Sweated as we waited, then drove round to the remains of Blackpool Airport but there was no news of the American Redstart on Barra (yes, you read correctly, we popped up to Barra in the Outer Hebrides today).
Neill had done all the preliminary, sorting the plane, pilot and timings beforehand, but when it came down to it, all we could do was wait for news of the bird, go home or take off…
We decided to fly up anyway…we were all too excited to back out of the booking now.

I was however, a tad disappointed to learn that our “cost shared” flight for the day was going to be in the Piper Cherokee on the right, not the grand old Lancaster behind it, but I guess the latter probably wouldn’t fit onto the beach at Barra.
We had crossed the rubicon and with no news of the mega from the island either way still, we prepared for take-off at 10.35am.
Chocks away!!!!
Our pilot was the excellent Adrian, who took us north past incoming skeins of Pink Feet, dropping out of the clouds to refuel at Oban before pushing west.
Always like a driver with a map (or a good i-Pad navigation app).
But how hard can an island be to find with that dirty great blue circle over it?

A sneaky check of the phone had revealed the bird was still there (how did that flight setting switch itself off???) vindicating this bizarre journey north.
We had to pause at Oban for a spot of negotiation before we had permission to land at Barra, but we were back up in the air again by just after 1pm.
Paul helpfully pointed out the gleaming white sands of the beach aka Barra International Airport after a stunning flight over the west of Scotland and numerous Hebrides.
Pods of dolphins had breached in a cobalt blue calm sea below us as we neared the target and the adrenalin started surging.

We swept down onto the sands of Barra and fell out of the Cherokee by 2pm, blagged a lift round to Eoligarry Church from airport team member Michael and were frantically scanning crinkly Sycamore leaves for the Yankee Redstart by 2.10pm.
The silence of beautiful tranquil Barra was almost deafening after the constant buzz of the Cherokee’s engines, but we were on a tight schedule – Michael was picking us up again at 2.50pm!

Fleeting views of the warbler as it darted through the dark understorey were not what the doctor ordered, and it was all getting a bit stressful as the minutes ticked by.
Luckily, with just ten minutes to go, the female American Redstart darted into the stunted Sycamore in front of us and began zipping all over the place, occasionally pausing for a few seconds to give gobsmacking views.
It was glorious, just yankee autumn mega glorious.
She was swishing and cocking her sexy yellow and black tail and flicking her wings almost constantly while hoovering up insects from the foliage.
Great views as she whizzed about, but way beyond my photographic abilities and I wasn’t going to waste the limited time worrying about f-stops and the like.
I just wanted to watch the warbler baby.
You can just see her in image at the top of the entry, and in this one too…

Luckily Neill Hunt is a bit better with a camera than I am – thanks for the picture below buddy. Spiffing.

Happy faces then as Michael came to collect us and bundle us to the airport/beach, while explaining as we sped back across Barra how the yellow-topped post marked the end of the runway and we had to take off before the rising tide flowed past it.

Oops.
Adrian hustled us into the Cherokee, and with the elastic bands fully tightened and backed by a fair wind, we raced down the sands and soared back into the blue again by 3.10pm!

Bye bye Barra, wish I could have stayed longer.
All that was left was to breathe a sigh of relief and play spot the Hebridean island as we cruised south.
Eriskay, Coll and Tireeeeee, Iona, Mull, the Paps of Jura, Islay, Ailsa Craig etc etc.
I wondered whether to tell Neill that his door wasn’t shut properly, but he discovered that himself quite quickly, and anyway, the cold air made the flight back to Blackpool all the more refreshing….
A ridiculously indulgent day, but with the white sand of Barra still dusting the soles of my Meindls as I sit here, back home less than 12 hours after I set out, it was undeniably splendid too…what an adventure!
I’ve been dreaming of landing on that beach for more than 30 years.
Thanks to Neill and Paul for the great company, Adrian and Michael for being brill and most importantly thanks to my lovely bank manager (if such creatures still exist in the virtual world of modern day finance) ‘cos my account took a right kicking today.
Was an American Redstart worth a monkey?
Absolutely.

More.

This morning’s final “Vis Mig” walk at work was hard going – fleeting views of one Leach’s over the low tide at Ainsdale in the wind and rain, two Wheatears and not much else.
True to form a return to the beach over the high tide after work this afternoon instantly produced a Leach’s pushing through the surf and a few minutes later, another weaving and staggering down the sand behind me.

It came as close as only a Leach’s can, stalling a few feet from me like a curious Southern Hawker.
You just gotta hold your breath and enjoy ’em then exhale as they drift off south away from you, tattered tails steering them into the wind and arched wings dipping and rising just millimetres over the shore.

There’s something almost intrusive about watching them when they wander past you on the sands, like you’re too close to their Leachy world.
Not a bird you can ever get tired of.
I love the stories and media that surround wrecks like this too – Ian Wolfenden’s sighting of a bird yesterday on the River Alt seconds before it was snatched by a Sprawk; Dave Bickerton recounting during this morning’s sesh how his dad followed a Leach’s up Salford and Trevor Road in Ainsdale on his milk float 40 years ago; Ron Jackson’s top video from this morning and of course Rich Steel’s amazing cod liver oil-steeped pics from Leasowe (previous entry).
Rich’s pix are much better than mine, but then I don’t smell like Billingsgate Fish Market (his words, not mine)!

A storm-battered female Common Scoter was resting on the sands at Ainsdale this evening, to compliment the male in the low tide channels there yesterday.
Hopefully they both got out to sea again.

Wonder how many Leach’s have come through Liverpool Bay in the last few days????

A fishy tale from the King of the Storm Bats

“Going to try some cod liver oil to see if I can pull them in or hold them for a few moments”, went the Messenger message from photographic guru Rich Steel as the Leach’s wreck began to unfold today and he went after some images of one of his – and my – favourite species over at Leasowe.
“And some shellfish extract concentrate – but I’m scared to take the lid off that one”.

How did he get on trying to bait something as wild as a Leach’s Petrel aka Storm Bat?
Well these stunning images speak for themselves – many thanks for letting me post them on the blog Rich!

Soon everyone will be covered in cod liver oil when the westerlies blow.
The wind is a bit in the south west tomorrow, but I think there is still plenty of scope to catch up with these marvellous birds in Liverpool Bay for the next two days at least – and Wednesday’s raging hooley if it shows up, could be a Leach’s blasting beast!
Last word goes to Rich.
“I currently smell like Billingsgate Market on a hot summer’s day – however it did work…had a couple of birds stop in front of us for about ten minutes at very close range”.
Thanks again buddy.

Leach’s Petrels.

Four Leach’s Petrels tottering and weaving over the sands at Ainsdale this morning in brutal conditions between 0930 and 1030.
The first of many no doubt if this NWly hooley holds.

Just magical birds – even when snatched at with a rain smeared compact camera.
Happily their arrival coincided with the first of three “Vis Mig” walks I’m leading at Ainsdale, so well done Tony and Kath who braved the conditions and met Leach’s Petrel for the first time.
Great to see smiling faces in a hooley!!!

Walks also set off at 9am from Ainsdale Discovery Centre (PR8 2QB) tomorrow (Tuesday 12.9.17) and Wednesday, last two hours tops and are free. Booking not necessary.
Don’t forget to bring your bins and wrap up warm – this weather system means business.

The yawning maw

I was hoping a bit more westerly would materialise out of the south/south westerly and that the rain showers would push something in as I spent this afternoon seawatching from the Tobacco Dump.
Neither hope was realised.
A storm-battered Fulmar was confronting its own mortality in the shallows – but no amount of Leach’s-style pattering was gonna get it airborne again and it kept being washed onto the beach.

The local Carrion Crows busied themselves preparing their napkins for the moment the luckless tube-nose succumbed.
Apart from this rather sorry distraction the seawatch was deathly quiet – good numbers of Common Scoter offshore, many of which were dozing after the recent westerlies, fishing Sarnie Terns and Gannets out on the horizon.

Tobacco Dump, 1245-1500:
S/SWly 4-5, cloudy with showers.

Common Scoter 500 approx
Fulmar 1
Gannet 56
Sandwich Tern 80+
Great Crested Grebe 1
Guillemot 2

A very wet owl

Conditions could hardly be described as perfect for hunting as I squelched into work through a rapidly flooding car park at Ainsdale this morning – so I was surprised to see a Barn Owl attempting to quarter the dunes beneath the office.
Just about the worse conditions possible for it – it perched up, drenched and looking thoroughly out of sorts after just a few moments.

Got a few blurry images of the bird in the gloom through the rain-streaked window and headed off to the first meeting of the day.
(“Sorry I’m late – Barn Owl on the fence” beats “dead Badger on the track at Basildon” every time Reggie).
I’d like to think it was a youngster, as late summer rain has probably made it a lousy season for them, but it was impossible to be sure as I tried to peer through the marram and the deluge.
Not a good morning to be a hungry owl though.

Bridges of Ross 2017: We’re gonna need a bigger bucket…

Just back from a superb few days of quantum birding/reverse listing/occasional seawatching at the Bridges of Ross, making the journey over to the wild west coast of Ireland with Duncan Rothwell and Andy Pryce on the Liverpool-Dublin ferry late on Thursday night (24.8.17).
It was my seventh annual visit and as ever, the hospitality of our brilliant Irish friends was overwhelming.
The tear-arsing westerly I’d hoped for failed to materialise, but the tally from the Bridges is better than most other seawatching sites in the world even when it’s quiet and each of the five days we scanned the waves was a joy.

The (almost) ever-present Manx Shearwaters, Gannets and Fulmars brought some classic autumn seabirds along, with Sooty and Great Shearwaters, Sabine’s Gulls, Storm, Leach’s and Wilson’s Petrels and three species of skua ensuring our ‘scopes were kept busy.

Thanks to Andy Pryce for letting me use his pic of an adult Sab’s Gull that paraded past us on Monday afternoon (I was too busy drooling to get a pic) and to Vittorio Caschera for supplying me with some fine images reflecting the crucial social side of our activities in Kilbaha and the Bridges.
It is after all, a criminal offence not to have fun in County Clare.
There’s Vic attempting a selfie with the characteristically sombre father and son seawatching phenomena that is Noel and Niall Keogh.
This was taken shortly after they bagged the Bridges’ Barolo a week or so back, so it’s hardly surprising it looks like you could scrape ’em off the ceiling…

The seawatching took the usual Bridges approach – a session from 7am to 10am each day before heading back to the cottage for brekkie, then a “big boy” stretch from 11am to 7pm, with occasional detours to check Loop Head and the gardens of Kilbaha for migrants, and visits to the now world-famous “lovely girls shop” for proper coffee.
Ahem.
With the legendary Lighthouse Inn in Kilbaha still closed, all sustenance (liquid and otherwise) was provided by Keatings – thanks for looking after us so well, and most importantly continuing to supply us with buckets of PINTS every evening, possibly the world’s greatest approach to a carry-out.
I am pleased to announce I have now graduated from the beginner’s cattle feed bucket of 2016 to being entrusted with the all-new super deluxe 2017 curry bucket delivery system, which needs greater care in handling as the designated driver heads slowly back to base to avoid traumatic spillage disasters.
Clink, clink, clink…

The bucket method guarantees everyone – even the Antler Moths – have a good time long after the pub has shut…

Right, on with the birds…

25.8.17:
1115-1900, SWly 3-4, cloud, light showers, sunny periods.

Manx Shearwater 2,500
Sooty Shearwater 16
Great Shearwater 1
Gannets loads
Fulmar loads
Arctic Skua 10
Sandwich Tern 3
Kittiwake 2
Red Throated Diver 1
Leach’s Petrel 1
Storm Petrel 6
Bonxie 5
Pomarine Skua 1 (full spoonage – lousy record shot!)
Whimbrel 18

26.8.17:
Drizzle, flat calm, brightening later.
Loop Head 0700-noon:
Grasshopper Warbler, Chough, Raven, Song Thrush, Hooded Crow, Mipits, Wheatear, Ravens. Minke Whale and Common Dolphin offshore.

Bridges of Ross, Noon-1900:
Hot, sunny, calm…

Manx Shearwater 750
Gannet loads
Fulmar loads
Sooty Shearwater 23
Sandwich Tern 37
Common Gull 1
Arctic Skua 4
Bonxie 1
Kittiwake 2
Black Tern 1
Wilson’s Petrel 1 (so distant it was barely tickable on the Irish list!)
Razorbill 16
Teal 1 female

Cetaceans were good in the flat calm conditions with a Humpback Whale, Minke Whale, many Common Dolphins and a visit by the Shannon Bottle Nosed Dolphins with a calf.
Grey and Common Seal too.

27.8.17:
0830-1200, 1330-1900, SSWly2-3, rain then sunny periods.

Black Tern 3
Arctic Skua 9
Manx Shearwater 332
Gannet loads
Fulmar loads
Razorbill loads
Whimbrel 4
Curlew Sandpiper 1
Sandwich Tern 106
Storm Petrel sp 1
Wilson’s Petrel 1 (much closer in – fine views)
Common Scoter 29
Great Crested Grebe 1
Black Guillemot 1 juv
Bonxie 5
Kittiwake 4
Sooty Shearwater 4
Dunlin 40
LBB 2
Guillemot 16
Med Gull 1
Sanderling 5
Knot 1
Arctic Tern 5
Grey Heron 2
Puffin 3

*counting waders is never a good sign at the Bridges, but a good species mix and a closer Wilson’s can’t be bad!

One of today’s passing Bonxies had MAJOR white wing flashes – possibly the most striking moultiness I’ve seen, while the Black Guillemot youngster was just beneath the cliff.

28.8.17:
0700-1050, 1345-1900, SWly 3-4, turning Wly later, cloud, drizzle.

Common Scoter 15
Manx Shearwater 509
Bonxie 13
Sandwich Tern 7
Sooty Shearwater 21
Arctic Skua 7
Pomarine Skua 1
Storm Petrel 2
Arctic Tern 4
Black Tern 2
Sabine’s Gull 2 (1 adult, 1 juv)
Kittiwake 3
Razorbill loads
Fulmar loads
Gannet loads

Lovely views of the very close adult Sab’s – and a great shot of it from Andy Pryce (ta Andy). Compare it with my crappy juv Kittiwake pic…

Leaping Tuna and Common Dolphin offshore today and the wind trying to get into the west. Finally.

29.8.17:
0700-0930, Wly 4-5, cloudy, mild, showers.

Sooty Shearwater 59
Great Shearwater 1 (distant)
Arctic Skua 4
Fulmar loads
Gannet loads
Manxies 270
Razorbill loads
Kittiwake 3
Guillemot 9
Common Scoter 17
Bonxie 6
Pomarine Skua 1
Arctic Tern 2
Red Throated Diver 1
Great Northern Diver 1

A truncated sesh as we had to head back east to catch the 3pm sailing to Liverpool, but solid Sooty Shear action and a very close full summer Great Northern Diver, with a Pom Skua bonus wasn’t a bad way to bring things to a close.
Shame the second Great Shear of the trip that I managed to lock onto stayed so resolutely distant.
Leaving Dublin Bay yesterday afternoon we managed Arctic Skua, two rafts of Manxies, auks, Kittiwakes and distant terns including one Black Tern, Arctics and what appeared to be a few Roseates, but they were a long way off.

A Kittiwake hitched a lift on the prow of the ferry from about halfway out to the waters of North Wales and was a lot easier to pap.

Thanks Duncan, Andy, Noel, Niall, Vic, Des, Joao, Jimmy, Ger, Neal, Colin and Jim – as ever a stunning few days.
Buckets willing, I look forward to seeing you all again when the west wind blows.

A problem with skuas…

609…610…611..6…What the hell!???
The lunchtime Sandwich Tern roost erupted in a screeching white blizzard, rising up off the beach at Ainsdale today.
I was already practising my “don’t disturb the roosts” speech to the whichever dog walker/horse-rider/birder/photographer/jogger/hiker was responsible before my eye left the ‘scope.
But when I turned around there was no one there.
The terns were still freaking out though and as I lifted my bins I saw four Arctic Skuas approaching from the north, low to the water and looking like they meant business.
They battered the roost for 20 minutes – three dark phases and one pale phase bird, before heading out to sea again.
Merciless, but stunning as they swept in to hit the terns again and again.

Wonderful beasts – a thrill to watch as the pirates tagged teamed over the waves.
Not so much fun if you’re a Sandwich Tern though I suppose.

The terns never really settled after that, and an accurate count was impossible.
At least 600 in one group though, with two smaller roosts north of them, but once the skuas had bullied everything in sight, the roost broke up and the terns headed out into the bay.
Still ain’t seen the albino/leucistic Sarnie – but four hunting skuas was more than ample compensation.

An odd sort of day

Whizzed down to the Bird Fair at Rutland today with Neill, Tony Owen and Jase – howdy Killian, how did I get all these leaflets? that ‘scope is lovely, where oh where is the beer tent?
No scope, no big boy camera, no problem.
Plenty of faces, tempting books and travel deals on offer to every nook and cranny on the planet.
A Great White Egret played hide and seek behind a post out on the lagoon and I “digi-poached” it thro’ the latest super smooth Kowa kit in the optics tent with my old point and press (ta Paul Hackett), when I wasn’t stuffing as many free Zeiss lens cloths as I could into my baggy pants.

After the plastic cup beer had warmed beyond tolerance, we headed back home, calling in at Wanlip Meadows Nature Reserve for long distance views of a Pectoral Sandpiper and a Spotted Crake there from the Plover Hide.
The Pec was straightforward enough amongst the Lapwing flock (even if I could only get the lousiest of record shots with my poor old TZ).

Kingfisher, Green Sand and Green Woodpecker made an overly complicated hunt/stake-out for the Spot Crake bearable and eventually we all had good ‘scope views, thanks to a kind-hearted regular, as it emerged from reeds about 150m away from the hide.
Interesting reserve, with plenty of Brown Hawkers and helpful locals.
Ta to Neill for the driving – it was great to bump into so many folk today, you know who you are…