Questionable data

Couldn’t resist a ramble through the dunes at Ainsdale at lunchtime today – bright sun and an oddly comforting buffety north easterly meant plenty of Mipits had been moving through the morning, with smaller numbers of alba wags – all bounding north.
The dunes were looking good too, after a winter of Red Poll coo and Herdwick Sheep grazing, with Tree Bumblebee taking advantage of the first blooming Creeping Willow and stacks of Mipits moving.
Stonechats were singing and at least three of the local Common Buzzards were up and circling with two Kestrels in their wake.

A warm sheltered bank out of the wind was a fine place to try to estimate the number of Mipits passing – I lay back and closed my eyes for a minute and counted the “bleeps” that passed through my consciousness.
25 in the first minute, 13 the next, then Zzzzzz…
Nodding off is clearly not a good technique to gather data, so I decided not to try to guage the albas the same way.
It ain’t the best method of hunting for a hoped for Ring Ouzel either, so I stirred and as I sat up saw a male Wheatear looking down its beak at me from a short distance away.
The bird fed in the sun for ten minutes or so before moving on.
No sign of any Rouzels yet, but it’s early days…

Man cannot live by Med alone.

A Raven was dancing over the outer marsh when I pulled up by the Sandplant this morning, and Goldcrests were calling in the bushes.
Fun as that was, it was cold and grey, with a wild south westerly blowing, so I dropped into Sandgrounders for shelter, meeting up with Pete Allen and Laura (ciao Laura) and Andy Pryce.
Initially quiet apart from BHGs, up to four Med Gulls appeared, swooping over the lagoon and displaying on the deck.
One full adult and three sub-adults showing varying amounts of black in the primaries, one of them had a red colour ring, but I couldn’t get the full sequence – “PR” definitely, possibly followed by a Y, but not sure.

Lovely as the Meds are, I decided to take a stroll – some of the Little Egrets batting past looked like they’d been roosting down a particularly dirty chimney, and a few Mipits and Reed Buntings pushed through.

After 30 minutes or so on the Sandplant walls in the company of confused Buff Tailed Bumblebees, Wrens and ‘crests, I scanned the edge of marsh again for the 50th time and this time there he was – a corking male Wheatear looking back at me, before flitting off behind the mounds.
Long time no see! Howya doin’???
To celebrate the sun broke through, so I drove up to Crossens to scan the geese in the ‘scope toppling south westerly (ouch, luckily the ‘scope seems to be as bouncy as my P900, which also took a flying lesson in Sandgrounders earlier – I was really in touch with my inner clumsy today).
About 3,000 gooses out there, but flighty in the strong wind and I was only able to pick out the two Barnies in the distant throng.
Raptors were skinny in the unfavourable conditions today too – just one each of Kestrel, Merlin and Common Buzzard – but my first Wheatear of the year kept me warm.
Earlier this week 94 Tufted Duck were off the platform on Hesketh Road on Thursday and Ringed Plovers were back on one of their few successful territories in the area, but I didn’t get a chance to check either today.

With each passing day…

No one about as I passed Crossens at 1.45pm today, so I pulled in and sneaked up the road to peer around the trees at the Water Pipits around the trough.
Two there at the time, tail pumping and shuffling about for five minutes until they scarpered when a cyclist went past wearing a very bright hi-vis jacket – so it’s not just birders they don’t like!

Usual blurry shots through the branches of these jittery birds though as the rain swept in.
Earlier blues skies revealed Mipits and wagtails including two Greys passing over Dempsey Towers – enough to prompt a morning visit to Marshside anyway.
The Kingfisher was knocking around the ditch beside Marshside Road, and the Goldcrests were still buzzing through the blossom above the old sandplant, alongside Buff-Tailed and Red-Tailed bumblybees, and Mad Dog was enjoying the delights of a substitute WeBs count.

Scoping out to infinity the Pink Foot flock was far, far away out past Crossens Outer, but there were still two Barnacles at least with them.
Nice male Merlin about too.
With each passing day the Wheatear gets closer…

A little drizzle is a wondrous thing.

Big flocks of birds all over Marshside today – and the old place certainly had the zing of spring about it.
At least 56 Avocets around Polly’s Pool, 2,000+ Golden Plover beyond and small groups of Mipits on the move.
Med Gulls were around the Sandgrounders hide again and south of the sandplant, good numbers of Pinkies were on the outer marsh, indistinct in the grey misty conditions.
Met up with Bazzo who’d had a Sand Martin through mid-morning, but things got really interesting when the drizzle kicked in at around 2pm.
Almost immediately eight Goldcrests materialised out of the scrub on the south side of the sandplant flycatching and calling, and there were three Reed Buntings, two Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Blue Tits and Dunnocks flitting amongst the blackthorn (?) blossom.
Stonechat on the seaward side too.
The ‘crests were fleeting blurs in the drizzle, but had the spark of passage about them nonetheless, promising more in the days ahead.
It’s imminent, I know, and I for one, can hardly wait…



Pretty much constant rain meant hide hopping was the only option today, so I aqua-planed over to Martin Mere and settled into the Janet Kear hide.
Things started off well enough with the nice bright male Brambling still about, but then Mr Mean swept in, fumbled a snack snatch at the feeders then perched up to glare furiously at his shortcomings.


It was strangely quiet around the feeders after that for some reason.
A visit to In Focus brought views of more than 70 Snipe in the air after a raptor flush, and two spring Ringed Plovers dropping in amongst the Ruffs and Whoopers.
On to Mere Sands where Redpolls buzzed over the damp canopy, and one of the Nuthatches was giving it the beans above me.


The Bittern was hunting frogs and fishies in the reeds off to the right of the Rufford Hide, but I didn’t mind – it’s the first time I’ve managed to see it in three attempts.
Reasonable views through the reed stems until it walked up and over the bank and out of sight into the next lagoon.




Not the best views I’ve had of Bittern – but by no means the worst either.
I stopped off at the Lancaster hide on the way out – at least three Bullfinches were on the seed behind the centre, while from the hide five Mandarins were dozing on the gravel island before steaming out onto the water in the rain.
Three drakes and two ducks, I can’t remember seeing that many here for quite some time, if ever.
I know they’re plastic, but Mandarins are gorgeous in a ridiculous sort of way, especially with those orange sails and whiskers up as they head out about their business, with Little Grebes yikkering away in the background.




And watching them here was somehow far nicer than taking up a parking space at Southport DGH for 20 minutes…

Provincial pipit politics


There was quite a crowd after the Water Pipits up at Crossens this afternoon by the time I arrived, which was great – good to see lots of people trying to see ’em, although they seem to be as tricksy as ever this year.
I managed brief views of one Water Pipit in the usual area just past the concrete trough, but could only take blurry pictures through the trees/brambles of the bank as I find if you stand out in the open there, you’re “skylined” and the birds won’t play.



Shame it was murky and cloudy by the time I arrived, but it was fun to see many of the great and good there, although my head was spinning after 45 minutes or so hearing of the monumentally confusing history of pipit politics, viz-a-viz Water Pipit v littoralis Rock v “normal” Rock Pipit in Lancashire.
Equally confusing was the appearance of a smallish Canada Goose amongst the distant Pinks on Crossens Outer – I don’t think it was the Todds that has been seen recently and was about earlier in the day.
The bird was just a bit bigger than the Pinkies, and was dusky on the flanks, but not dusky enough for me, although it was a long way away as it grazed with Fairhaven Church in the background over the Ribble.


Closer and infinitely less perplexing, there were three Med Gulls strutting their stuff in front of Sandgrounders – two full adults and a sub-adult bird, and 20 or so Avocets knocking about as the rain set in.


Velvet range.


1,500-2,000 Common Scoter off Ainsdale this morning and for once, they were quite close in (in scoter terms that is, but still hard to work while on the water).
As ever they began to drift out as the rising tide threatened to push them closer to the beach.
They are easier to watch at this time of year, as they are more skittish, frequently coming and going so that when they took off for a short flight at noon I was able to pick up a male Velvet Scoter, and shortly after another two males together, big and powerful amongst the blizzard of Commons (the pic is through the salt-stained office window, but you get the idea).
Even though the sun cast a silvery panel onto most scoters wings today, the contrasty black and white Velvets really stood out – as they always do.
I wish I knew more about scoter behaviour – why do small groups go on those short flights, taking to the air for 50 metres or so before crash landing like plummeting black puddings into the waves again?
Why does the entire flock take to the air apparently without motive occasionally?
How do they cope with the constant swell?
Why so shy?
Does moult effect their feeding patterns here?
Will they ever get close enough to pick out a Surfie?
Encouraged by the Velvet hat-trick I tried a seawatch at lunchtime (1230-1330) but the flock had broken up a bit by then and as I said, had drifted further out on the rising tide.
Military manoeuvres down Hightown way meant a great big Chinooky type helicopter was repeatedly sweeping out over the bay, spooking the Ainsdale scoters on several occasions more and at 1310 I was able to pick out a further Velvet Scoter in flight.
This one was browner, a female or juv mebbe.
Otherwise quiet, bar 10 RB Mergs.
Good lunch.

Because 800 miles are never far enough.


Despite the quality of our roadtrip on Doris Day up to Scotland and back down the north east coast, there was still more tarmac that needed to be covered, so Neill picked me up at 5.30am today for a further round of year ticking frenzy.
Skipper Rothwell and Alan Wright were already aboard for a top day of quality birds, dvd critiques and lots of laughs.
First stop was Great Barford in Bedfordshire, for the splendid Little Bunting that is a member of a winter feeding flock in a seed heavy corner of a field just down the Ouse from the Olde English village.
We got onto to it straight away as it shuffled about amongst stubble, Reed Bunts, Yellowhammers, Great Tits, Chaffinches and Robins.



Obviously smaller than Reed Buntings beside it, it’s whiter undercrackers made it stand out in the morning light, but it always kept low, only occasionally affording views of its lovely dark edged chestnut ear coverts.
Good bird – long time no see.
Green Woodpecker was calling here, but we didn’t hang around as we had many miles to cover, moving on to Grafham Water, which was stacked with Great Crested Grebes, Goldeneye, Goosanders and Tufties, but not much else.
At Needingworth RSPB we squelched around the gravel pits until we found the redhead Smew, which showed distantly making snappage challenging at best.
Cetti’s Warblers exploded from the brambles and Green Woodpeckers yaffled around the car park.



Neill steered out onto the vast flatlands of Cambridgeshire, a landscape that makes the south west Lancs mosslands look decidedly hilly, with Ely and its cathedral sailing above the horizon, but keeping its Glossy Ibis under wraps while we were there.
Which was annoying.
We pushed on until we got to Lincs Wildlife Trust’s Willow Tree Fen reserve, where a super confiding Bluethroat has been entertaining the troops all week long along the main track.


The bird had flitted back into a reed stand just before we arrived, so there was nothing to do but hunker down beside the track and wait until mealworms dumped on the track lured the bird out again.
Some of us may not have been firing on all cylinders by this latest stage of the year ticking odyssey, as a cold wind began to pick up and the early start took its toll.


Was it worth the wait?
It was.
Bluethroats are always fab, but this one didn’t give a fig about who was about as it bounced out onto the track a few feet from us 20 minutes later, flicking its tail, dropping its wings and generally showing off as only a Bluethroat can.




It’s not often that a bird leaves the assembled ranks speechless, but no one made a sound as the Bluethroat performed barely ten feet from us – what a bird!
With time catching up with us, it was full steam ahead to Rutland Water for Red Kite, 2 Black Necked Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, squadrons of Great Crested Grebe, flocks of Goldeneye, Tufties, Wigeon etc and an unexpected rendezvous with Neill’s brother Barrie, before the younger Hunt got behind the wheel again to get us home safely and speedily.
Great stuff – thanks all for yet another wondrous day… I could get to like this year ticking mullarkey.

Sniggering behind the back of Storm Doris


Ceaseless advisorys not to travel unless absolutely necessary, 90mph winds, blizzards and torrential rain masquerading under the name of Doris meant just one thing:
It was time to hit the road with Neill and Trops, as their orgy of year listing began to get seriously competitive, and seriously fun.
So what if the Hooded Merganser hadn’t been reported since Sunday last? Sometimes you’ve just got to believe.
Neill picked us up yesterday morning at 5am and we headed north through the worst weather we experienced over the last two days – sheets of sluicing rain that turned the M6 into a washing machine of brake lights and zero visibility – if it was this bad then, how bad would Storm Doris be when the sun rose up in Scotland?
Answer: Doris never showed up!
As Merseyside was given a damn good thrashing it was cool and calm up north.
No wind, and the rain eased, so by the time we swung into Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway and pulled up at Carlingwark Loch conditions were really rather nice.
As was the fine male Ring Necked Duck tootling round the flat calm loch with a flotilla of Tufties.


We watched it for about half an hour before getting back on the road up through the beautiful backroads of Dumfries and Galloway, then Ayrshire, past Red Kite and a steadily increasing drizzle, until the first snow hit us at 9.45am, right on cue.
Still no wind though as we trudged through the Lochwinnoch slush to scope Barr Loch for the distant, but groovy drake Hooded Merganser which has been there all winter.



About as good as one of these things gets, it was undeniably handsome as it steamed up and down against a wall of reeds, diving and often disappearing into the vegetation.
Potentially plastic maybe, but the Hooded Merg did have the common decency to arrive in a hooley last autumn, its arrival coinciding with a number of other Yankees – so who knows???
A quick look at Castle Semple Loch from the excellent RSPB Lochwinnoch visitor centre revealed Siskin, Brambling, stacks of Goosanders, Pochard and Goldeneye, but no sign of the redhead Smew.


The blanket of snow thickened as we headed northwest to Gourock Bay, where the Bonaparte’s Gull was hiding too, but we did have Black Guillemot, 2 Med Gulls, Shag and Eider.
From there we headed slowly south east, past Edinburgh and down the east coast until we pulled up at the Trap Inn in Broomhill, Northumberland, where we crashed on Thursday night.
Plenty of food, drink and even a meeting of the local astronomy society which allowed us to make endless bad jokes about a certain duck-egg blue planet as the beer kicked in.
No, not Pluto, the other one.
Brilliant – and best of all it was only a few minutes drive from East Chevington, so that when we stumbled out of bed today into a flat calm and blue sky morning, we were only minutes away from the wintering Pacific Diver and Slav Grebe on the north pool there.
Both were distant, but cool enough and gave great ‘scope views – it has been awhile since I watched the first Pacific for the UK back in 2007.



There was Scaup, Goldeneye and Goosanders galore on the blue winter water here too.
It was the start of a splendid day of year ticking frenzy, next stop Prestwick Carr, once we’d found the place, and a Great Grey Shrike, which put the fear of God into the local Reed Bunts as it hunted from trees and bushes.


All shriked up, we scooted off to North Shields and the fish docks by Tynemouth for a showy Glaucous Gull and an Iceland Gull on the fishing shed roof.




The local Eiders were point blank, and Turnstones and Rock Pipits scurried around the dock.
Up at the harbour/breakwater at Tynemouth, Purple Sandpipers probed the jetty and Fulmars were back on nesting cliffs in warm sunshine.



All very springlike.


Smiles all round then as we arrived in the bleak wasteland beside the sinister walled necropolis of Spion Kop Cemetery in Hartlepool to say “howdy” to the wintering Shorelark on the barren ground above the shore.



Spiffing, but the clock was ticking so we drove on to Saltholme Pools, past flocks of Eurasian Whitefronts dropping out of the sky into the weird landscape, dominated by industry and the transporter bridge.
We didn’t get a chance to play on it today, instead we headed south to Skinningrove to finally catch up with the tame Eastern Black Redstart on the beach there.
Pretty, pretty, it didn’t let us down.
Occasionally the Black Red even broke into a quiet song as it sat amongst the rocks.





We even had time to year tick Red Grouse during a quick pitstop at the highest bit of the A66 on the way home as the light was fading at 5.15pm.
Finally I have to thank my two friends for 800 miles of laughs and birds, and Neill for all the driving of course.
It was a great two days.
Just one question: “Has anyone seen Uranus?”

Caribbean vortex my ass.


The promise of a plume of warm air pushed across the Atlantic by a “Caribbean vortex” was enough to lure out a flotilla of Mr Whippy vans which took up key strategic positions along the coast today, but it was hardly “99 with all the trimmings” weather.
As good a name for an icy as “Caribbean Vortex” would be, it still felt very much like February at Marshside.
The site was grey and gloomy, and mizzly murk repeatedly reduced visibility drastically.
The newly arrived two Avocets quickly hunched up to shiver on long blue legs off Nels while the BHGs were busy reclaiming the Sandplant lagoons for another noisy breeding season.


It was mild enough to coax Coltsfoot into flower, but the mist rolled in by the time I got up to Crossens, where I could just make out three Dunlin amongst the Wigeon and Lapwings, and one of the Ravens towered above the Carrion Crows as it tucked into a carcass.
About 200 Golden Plover were wheeling around the landward areas, but there were only about 70-100 Pinkies on the outer marsh.