Small mercies

A whistle-stop around the bird fair at Martin Mere was as good a way to catch up with a few old friends as any this morning, but it did use up a fair bit of valuable bright winter sun.
A walk round Hesketh Out Marsh afterwards was time well spent, once the crack of salvoes from the clay pigeon shoot behind had petered out and it got a bit more peaceful.
There were at least 11 female-type Goosanders forming a classy flotilla right down at the west end, with two Goldeneye and the long-staying two Great Crested Grebes.

A family party of ten Whoopers sailed about on the back pools.
Tree Sparrows, Linnets, Goldfinches, Long Tailed Tits, Robin, Goldcrest, Blackbirds, Redwing, Song Thrush and Chaffinches in the hawthorns, while Wigeon numbers began to swell out on the water.

A Great White Egret flew through, long black legs trailing behind it forever, heading out down the estuary towards Marshside, and there were up to five Marsh Harriers, Peregrine and two Common Buzzards.
Single Spotted Redshank and Greenshank, eight Dunlin and two Blackwits, but distant on the rear pools.
Nothing you wouldn’t expect to find at HoM at this time of year, but pleasant walking the bank anyway, avoiding the sheep-poop landmines.
Another look at the finch flock around the car park just before I left revealed a bright white bum in the darkening branches, betraying a Brambling.

It was dropping down into the paddocks to feed, but always kept deep in the willow branches when it flew back up.
Brambling is a bonus locally of course, but I hope the next one is a bit more obliging…

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Absolutely November.

The raw cold and stillness as always comes as a bit of a surprise after autumn.
Little Owl in the usual place on the way out to Mere Sands today, with Bullfinch, Siskin, Greater ‘Pecker and Nuthatch there.
Plenty of Teal on the open water.
And at Martin Mere, Redwings, Bullfinch, two Cetti’s Warblers, Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzards and clamouring Pink Feet and Whoopers of course.
Clusters of Fieldfares, Mistle Thrushes and Blackbirds across the mosses.
They say April is the cruellest month, but it’s not, it’s November.
Absolutely November.

Stacks of Starlings

There were loads of ’em.
Two swarms of a few hundred each on the outer marsh and numerous smaller groups comprising of 20-50 birds commuting between Marshside Two and the outer marsh, as I trundled north from the sandplant this afternoon.
The November-appropriate windchill, brisk north westerly, bright sun and Starling buffet made for good hunting conditions for Sprawks, Merlin and Kestrel, and a Common Buzzard cruised above.
Murmuration time.

A Great White Egret was way out off the old wildlfowler’s car park, and Pinkies were scattered about in the vegetation, and getting used to passing cars, cyclists and birders.
Likewise the two Stonechats were showing off around the Sandplant lagoon.

Cheesy.
Four Cattle Egrets were doing their cow thing as usual north of Marshside Road, but although Nels was busy, busy, busy, there were relatively few birds off here when I was there – the geese, Blackwits and Ruff were at the back of the marsh, only a few gulls were about and no smaller waders were visible, apart from squelchy Snipe.

Shouldn’t it be easier with less leaves?

Despite the Sycamores shedding most of their leaves down Range Lane, the feeding flocks down there were still paying hard to get.
Long Tailed Tits weren’t bothered, flitting about in the sun, but the Blackbirds, Goldcrests, other titmice and finches were playing hard to to get, preferring to lurk in the shadows at the back of the bushes and trees as I made way down to Cabin Hill.
Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and a single Fieldfare were among the Blackbirds stuffing their faces with hawthorn berries hidden from the hard November sun by the tangle of branches.

Quiet otherwise though – up to 20 Skylarks in Marsh Farm’s fields and about 70 Pink Feet there, and the resident corvids giving the resident Common Buzzards the usual neighbourly hassle.
Stonechat and Linnets in the gorse clumps.
Over at Lunt Meadows, parties of 8-12 Common Snipe were dropping in fairly frequently (I counted at least 60 birds), and thousands of Pink Feet rose on the horizon from the mosslands before heading out to roost on the Alt estuary.
I left before it got too cold, before the Shorties stirred and before the shutters really started clattering.
On the upside I stopped to enjoy a covey of nine Grey Partridges in the ploughed fields north of the reserve entrance – don’t see them so much now, whether the trees have leaves on or not.

3pm: Lights out

In spite (or perhaps, because) of the shooters out on Plex this afternoon, busy atomising the Red Legged Partridge/Pheasant biomass, all the thrushes had congregated in the tall trees around Plex Brow Farm.
Chacking and sighing, 40-50 Fieldfare, 20+ Redwing and a few Mistle Thrushes and Blackbirds were hidden in the branches as the light went out of the day shortly after 3pm.
It happens every year, but the realisation that someone has pinched the day by mid-afternoon once the clocks go back, always comes as a bit of a shock.

The winter thrushes were as alert as ever as I watched them for a few minutes before heading off. Great birds.
Much brighter yesterday, when I spent a few hours at the Hesketh Road platform at Marshside – Goldcrests watched me through the hawthorn twiggery, Cetti’s Warbler and Water Rail called from the SSSI ditch, and despite a young Marsh Harrier patrolling Marshside One, a Greenshank dozed away amongst the Blackwits.

Siskins, titmice, two Whooper Swans, Chaffinches, thrushes, 3 Greater ‘Peckers and wagtails through as I listened out for arresting calls overhead – but Wigeon impersonators was the best I could do…
Not today John.
Marsh Harrier hunting and plenty of Ruff at Martin Mere in front of the In Focus hide today and yesterday (the light was better yesterday though) as Andy Bunting plotted patch birding world domination.

As good as place as any to pick up the 2016 Lancs Bird Report – have you got yours yet?

“piZZZt”!!!

A fine, crisp clear morning down at Marshside today, with a nippy northerly blowing, a Cetti’s Warbler spluttering and a Water Rail shrieking from the SSSI ditch as I settled down at the Hesketh Road platform.
Pinkies dropping onto Marshside One, amongst the Ruff, Lapwings and Blackwits, while the local Buzzards got serious Magpie hassle.
Small groups of Starlings were heading north, and a Migrant Hawker was still just below the platform.
All felt well.
Things got much better though at 10.45am when I heard a sharp call and got my bins on six big pale brown fat lumps heading north in the sun just to our left – bull heads, dirty great bills, a pale flash at the base of dark primaries and stumpy rear ends as they bounded north and away – HAWFINCHES!
Come back!!!
Luckily I got Big Hairy Dave and the splendid Colette (you can see someone about those dragonfly dreams you know) onto them before they disappeared over the willows of the SSSI ditch and out of sight.
A loud sharp call had alerted me to them (the blog entry header is the best way I can describe it), but they uttered another call too, which was hard to describe, kind of like a muted Crossbill if that makes sense.
I’d certainly not heard Hawfinches do that before.
I checked the Collins Guide on my phone… the call was related as “the sound made by jabbing a spike into solid granite”.
This was undeniably colourful, but as I lacked a spike or a block of granite, it wasn’t much use.
The current national influx of this superb finch is one of the biggest and most mahoosive ever apparently, but I wish I could have seen these beauties perched up.
I put the news out (Tropical Thomason had three Hawfinches over the golf course a short time later) and headed up to Nels Hide, where a scabby male Goldeneye was diving away and one of the Long Billed Dowitchers was snoozing, preening and then snoozing again.

Good ‘scope views, but too far away for me to get anything other than a baaad blobby picture – as these shots prove only too well.
The Cattle Egrets (I saw at least five today) were messing about up in the corner by Marshside Road, and a Little Stint popped up as the air warmed with the vision of a flock of 100+ Golden Plover coming in to rest in the hard sun.
There were a few Goldcrests around the Sandplant and small groups of Pied Wags were on the move.
Two flocks of small bouncy finches jerked about over the beach north of the pier and a short while later off Weld Rd, at about 1.30pm, and may have been Twite back in for the winter, but I was trundling along in the Sunday pm traffic by this time, heading back to Dempsey Towers for a spot of autumnal slash and burn…. I’ll get back to them during the shorter days to come I’m sure.

Red Breasted Fly on the doorstep

Andrew Spottiswood‘s voice sounded a bit trembly when he called me just before work this morning…
“I’ve got a Red Breasted Flycatcher by Gate 13 at Ainsdale”, was all that he needed to say.
I was out of the office door and covering the two hundred yards from the office to the area in licketysplit time, stumbling through the drenched Creeping Willow.
I know RBFlys are regular east coast autumn visitors, but in Sefton they are rarer than Unicorn Bacon.
Got to the area to find Andrew watching a patch of willows where the RBFly was zipping about as only they can do, black and white tail flashing in the gloom.
Pauses between sallies around the willows showed no red on the throat (obs) and plenty of white at the base of the tail.
Too dark for a pic after the rains, but I set the ‘scope up for digiscoping expecting it to come closer, or at least sit out in the open for long enough for me to get a record shot – but it just melted away and that was it – no sign after 0940.
First time I’ve seen one on the Sefton coast and a great reward for Andrew who covers this patch south of Ainsdale Discovery Centre day in and day out.
His previous finds here down the years include Red Backed Shrike and Wryneck. His rewards are hard-earned and richly deserved.
Classic patch birding, well done Andy and thanks!
If you come looking, follow the fenceline south of Ainsdale Discovery Centre, the bird may just be lying low, or it could have moved on – the dune system has plenty of places to hide as regulars know only too well!!!!

Now my car smells of shearwater

As I slid into the driver’s seat I noticed the lid on the box in the passenger footwell was slightly ajar and in the dark I could hear a scuttling noise.
It was just like that bit in “Aliens” when Ripley and Newt are locked into the medi-lab after the nasty beasties have been released from their holding jars in an act of predictable corporate wickedness.
Okay, it wasn’t quite as scary as that, but the bottom line was that the Manx Shearwater had got out of its box and was now somewhere in my car in the pitch dark.
The air was permeated not so much by the stench of fear as the pong of straw and pilchards.
Oops.
I didn’t want to dazzle the bird with a light before release so the Manxie had the advantage over me (being raised in a dark, cramped burrow).
So we played cat and mouse, or rather idiot and shearwater, in the confines of the wheels.
After a bit of fumbling, and nips and scratches from its pointy bill and claws (great for climbing out of holding boxes) I cornered the shear under my seat and bundled it back into the box before heading to Ainsdale beach.

I don’t know how long it had been wandering around my car, but the odd thing was when I left it there, I’m sure there was a Paco Pena CD on the deck.
When I finally turned the ignition on, the Pogues started playing instead…perhaps this was an Irish Manxie?
Once I got out to the eerie water’s edge at Ainsdale it seemed anxious enough to be off and after two false starts flew strongly into the night – only to veer back east and head inland!
Ronald Lockley eat your heart out.
It was probably heading back for some more of the luxury pilchards Dave Bickerton had fed it after it was discovered on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal near Rishton on Thursday evening.
The bird was dropped off to me by Cheryl from Lancs Wildlife Trust yesterday for release once night fell and gulls couldn’t snaffle it.
Fully fed and watered the shearwater had spent most of the afternoon sleeping, while I enjoyed Common and Jack Snipe in the dunes during a guided walk.

A strange evening took a further turn for the surreal when after the success of Operation Pilchardface I popped up to the Legless Arms, where Neill Hunt displayed the sad corpse of a Black and White Warbler he discovered on a cargo ship that docked at Liverpool.
The ship had come in from Belgium, but before that it had sailed from Wilmington in North Carolina, a far more likely port of embarkation for the ex-Yankee warbler than the Low Countries.
I thought the eau de shearwater in my car was a heady perfume before I caught a whiff of this wonderful, but very dead, waif.
Nope, you can’t tick dead Megas.
Don’t think you’ll want to be keeping that in Mrs H’s best tupperware for too long Neill…

How hard can it be?

Nowhere does murky grey quite like Lancashire.
Grey clouds bleed into the grey horizon that bleeds into a grey marsh where grey geese graze.
Some raw, grey mornings here squish birding optimism pancake flat quicker than Fred Dibnah’s steam-roller.
If they made Hawaiian shirts on days like these, they’d be monochrome etc etc.
Grey.
I wasn’t in the mood for grey though and even as I was pulling up at Crossens on the rising tide I was making other plans.
There were a few birds about – two Little Stints and a Curlew Sandpiper with the Ruff etc on Crossens Inner, and a few flights of Golden Plover.
Then a Peregrine came through and put the willies up everything.
Goldcrests, Blackbirds and Robins were in the bushes around the sewage works.

On Crossens Outer a young male Marsh Harrier flapped through with a purpose, heading straight east, and Raven, Snipe, Merlin, Pink Feet, Common Buzzards and Great White Egrets were further out.
Beneath the pull-in there were plenty of Mipits, Linnets, Goldfinch and Pied Wags.
I could see the grey seeping into the edges everywhere so followed the Marsh Harrier’s example and moved inland.
Time for a look at the Willow Tits at Mere Sands, by the feeders behind the centre.
The Willow Tits were in and out all the time, but unlike the other species there, they were really wary, never perching in the open and rarely spending more than a few seconds on the tables.

Coal Tits, Nuthatches (mmmm…sunflower seeds) and everyone else was playing the game, but even an idiot like me can manage to photograph birds on a bird table.
The Willow Tits were far more awkward, although it was nice listening to them calling from the shady canopy of a pine before they zipped back into cover.

Soon the grey caught up with the day, heavy rain set in and somewhere I could hear a steam-roller starting up.
Time to head home.

Between a Rock Thrush and a hard place

When I was a kid and training to be a journalist in Cardiff, one of the richest seams for mining quality stories (you were expected to find a real exclusive every week), was the magistrates courts up in the valleys, wearily called to order after another wild weekend.
All human life (and most human excesses, vices and crimes) could be found here, although after a seriously debauched break, it was often a bewildering mystery to said human life quite how they had ended up before the beaks.
These were tough, hard people in a hard place.

I was reminded of days past as I stomped and splashed over the moorlands of the black hills above Abergavenny before dawn today with Alan Wright, towards the old Pwll Du quarry.
I’d collected Alan at 2.30am and driven down through worsening conditions, so that the moors and quarry, sluiced with drizzle, wind and rain looked like the alien planet in “Prometheus” when we arrived.
Ravens, yes; Merlin, yes; Kestrel, yes – but not surprisingly no sign of yesterday’s Rock Thrush which had been seen here yesterday.
After nearly four hours of being buffeted by the gale on the edge of the quarry’s cliffs and drenched by the rains, we called it a day and I began to sleep-drive back to Merseyside.
Inevitably half an hour down the road, distracted by Red Kites and what looked like a fly-by Hawfinch (?), the sun broke through and the Rock Thrush reappeared in the hills above the quarry.
We whizzed back to Pwll Du to enjoy prolonged and wonderful views of this marvellous bird as it hunted wasps amongst the scree and gorse just above us on a sheltered slope round the hillside from the quarry.

In the sunshine it stood out as bright and pale as a very big Wheatear (albeit one with a red tail, orange flecked belly and lovely scaly and pale-edged uppers), but when the low clouds scudded back over it could really blend in to its background – what a stunner.

You’ve gotta love autumn…Thanks for the company Alan! Thanks for the show Rock Thrush!