Small and far away #2

Towering above a 5p bit (just) the Early Sand Grass, or Mibora minima to give its grown-up name, was flowering away at its Southport HQ this afternoon.
I popped in to have a look following the annual tip-off from Phil Smith (ta Phil), after a quiet few hours at Marshside.

Nationally rare, and seriously small, it is yet another important species that occurs on the Sefton coast.
Always good to have a fall-back in the slowish bit between the first Wheatears, Chiffies and hirundines and the tsunami of superb migrants which will start pouring in over the next few days (hopefully).
Marshside was cool and largely overcast, with three Sand Martins over Fairclough’s Pool at Hesketh Road, singing Chiffchaff, Avocets and plummeting duck numbers.
The Buzzard and Sprawk were both up around the Hesketh Road platform, but the Sand Martins were moving away by the time I got my camera on ’em…

I drove up towards Crossens just in time to see the majority of the geese taking flight and heading far out onto the marsh in the wibbly wobbly haze.
Six Barnacle Geese remained with the stragglers and I had a Great White Egret over before I was lured away by the smallest grass in the world…


Sun goes in, sun comes out…

The mosses were predictably quiet this afternoon as a brisk, cold westerly ripped in off the Irish Sea, so I sought shelter at Haskayne Cutting.
A solar activated Chiffchaff broke into song whenever the sun broke through, but switched off as soon as the clouds rolled in again – one of many tuning up locally since midweek.

Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies were on the wing, but otherwise everything was going yellow in the cutting, with Marsh Marigold, Cowslip and Lesser Celandines bursting into flower.

On the exposed mosses about a thousand Pink Feet were in the air over Carr Moss to the north, and several Lapwing were sitting on Plex.
Three Fieldfare were lingering on Station Road not far from the cutting and a Grey Partridge scuttled across the track here.
Meanwhile Common Buzzards were enjoying the breeze, riding the gusts and calling away at Engine Lane and a few other spots.
Profoundly depressed to see two stretches of hawthorn hedgerow on Station Road and Plex Moss Lane covered in anti-bird netting today.
Clearly someone’s hermetic idea of a rural idyll doesn’t include wildlife.

The time and the place.

I got to Marshside an hour or two before high tide today and settled down at the end of the Sandplant as the waters crept in over the outer marsh.
It’s the right time and right place, so I wasn’t surprised to see my first two Wheatears of the year hanging around on the south side, as 30+ Skylarks and Mipits fed in the fenced off area.
Both Wheatears frequently flew up to perch on posts and lean into the strengthening south westerly breeze, allowing me to look down on them from the cover of the sandplant revetment…

Marvellous birds, wonderful to see them back, as a Chiffchaff sang in the scrub behind me.
I wasn’t expecting a female/first winter bird so early on though, usually I just see adult males in March, although I seem to remember females were moving early last year too…?
As the marsh disappeared one (or was that two?) Short Eared Owl took to the air, hunting briefly along the water’s edge before searching for drier ground to the north, and two Merlins zoomed about.
The air fizzed with clouds of waders, gulls and egrets – you can’t beat a big tide at Marshside.

Offshore two drakes and a duck Eider bobbed about on the swell, while the waters pushed thousands of geese off the outer marsh and onto Crossens Inner.

The ringed second summer Med Gull was off Sandgrounders, and one of the female Scaup and a Pochard was with Tufties on the Sandplant Lagoon.
The Spoonbill was hoovering through the Avocet carpet on the flashes behind Polly’s, and the two Barnacle Geese were still about.

The day began to drop cold as the tide receded, so I headed up to Crossens, where pipits and Pied Wags were feeding on the freshly exposed turf and on Crossens Inner the small Canada Goose was with thousands of Pink Feet and showing well, or at least it would have if I’d walked down the inner bank, but by then I was too cold, so ‘scoped the tease from the pull-in.

Feeling like the start of it all…

Top marks for this morning’s Goldcrest at the Sandplant (one of two or three birds) for singing away despite being a bit on the bedraggled side.
The tiny bundle of feathers was feeding and preening by the Sandplant entrance, while a Chiffchaff was moving up and down through the scrub, tail pumping and singing occasionally…

Marshside has been getting steadily more zingy over the last week or two – BHGs returning to the lagoon, Avocets squabbling all over the place, but the rising temperatures today (Peacock butterfly tottering about, several bees) and for a time, dense mist, meant good numbers of Meadow Pipits and Pied Wags were on the move too.
A few Redpoll buzzed overhead, but fortunately they were obscured by the mist.
I couldn’t see the Spoonbill behind Polly’s Pool either, but this wasn’t surprising as most of the time I couldn’t see Polly’s Pool.
Wheatear felt imminent, but wasn’t – anytime now though.

Life is a cabaret

I like a good storm as much as the next birder, perhaps more so, but I was relieved to see the wind had dropped this morning.
Yesterday it was still pretty breezy and at Marshside the Spoonbill, ringtail Hen Harrier, Avocets and two Barnacle Geese were all great value, with the former still bog-snorkelling along the ditches behind Polly’s and the ringtail coming pretty close to the Sandplant.
Much calmer today though, and with a week off, I walked into the Local Nature Reserve at Birkdale in near perpetual light rain.
It was quiet, but I did come across 2-3 Redpolls amongst the Siskins, Goldcrests and titmice.
At first I couldn’t get a good view of the birds as they had the watery grey light behind ’em.

All Redpolls deserve close inspection, even if they do make my head hurt, so I followed the loose feeding flock through the birches until the light was behind me and I could watch as they fed quietly on buds.

Clearly good, straightforward buffy cabaret Lesser Redpolls, it was all going swimmingly until I noticed the third bird seemed much paler and I had to try and remember all the confusing Redpoll stuff that you store away (or in my case, blot out) for a rainy day much like this one…

Small bill, small bib, paler, heavily streaked rump, whiter wing bars, white belly and vent with minimal streaking etc etc.
I needn’t have worried though, I wasn’t really in Mealy land, not by a long chalk.
The more I watched the bird, the more I realised it was a male cabaret, just a bit worn probably, which gave the initial paler impression, and this was exaggerated by the wet, watery light conditions.*

As the light softened the bird began to assume the buffier hues I was expecting and I relaxed.
All good clean fun.
* More than happy to hear other views though, if anyone fancies a spin round the ornithological padded cell that is Redpoll ID ….

Comedy Spoonbill

Arguably Spoonbill look daft enough to be going on with, but with a force 6-7 south westerly pushing it along, the Marshside bird was a sight to behold this afternoon.
With the storm force gusts up it, the Spoonbill fairly scooted along the marsh behind Polly’s Pool, tottering along like a roller skating stilt-walker.
Possibly the most frenetic Spoonbill ever – whether it wanted to be or not.
Sheltering in Sandgrounders Hide seemed the best bet, while the gale was strong enough to ground the big female Peregrine not far from Polly’s and keep most everything else down.

Avocets were blasted around south of Nels Hide, but smallish gull roosts at Hesketh Road and earlier, Weld Road, held nothing out of the ordinary that I could see.
I should have pushed up to Crossens, where Stuart Darbyshire watched two Little Gulls amongst the BHGs, but I was windblown enough and headed for home, as a Merlin scorched across the Municipal Golf Course into the wind and out onto the shore.

Siskins back.

My first Siskins of Spring dropped into the feeders at Dempsey Towers today – two males and a female.
A sure sign the seasons are changing when the March passage of these cracking little finches starts to exhibit itself through the back window.
Managed a few shots via the double glazing and billowing Saturday washing drying on the line…
Anyone else got them in their gardens?

Scratching my psychoterratica*

I needed an outdoor hit whatever the weather today, so popped over to Martin Mere in the drizzle.
Quiet, but pleasant enough, with plenty of Pochard, Ruff, Lapwings and about 80 Whoopers as I chatted with Andy Bunting at In Focus.

A busy flock of Fieldfare were rippling through the stubble in the field opposite the entrance, while further down the track the resident Tawny Owl was one soggy, scowling critter today…

Out on the Reedbed Walk I could hear Water Rails, but got not a sniff of the Bittern or Bearded Tits that may still be lingering here.
Andy’s Sand Martin sneaked past me too… ah well, good days, bad days.

*No, I’m not sure what it means either…

Tengmalm’s Owl, Shetland: Tumblin’ dice.

The “now you see me, now you don’t” day on/day off performances, lamped by neepheads on Saturday and completely invisible on Sunday – all this conspired to ensure the Shetland Tengmalm’s Owl pushed optimism to the limits.
Long odds indeed.
Despite this, with minimal cajoling I managed to get Mike Stocker, June Watt and Jason Stannage committed (some would say we should be) and booked NorthLink foot passenger tickets from Aberdeen to Lerwick for Sunday night and we motored up to the Granite City with June at the wheel.
Ignoring the lack of sightings yesterday around Tumblin Road at Bixter, it was time to put a brave face on things and push north.
All the way north.
We landed at Lerwick at 7am yesterday morning, where the excellent Bolts Car Hire team had a sparkly MG3 waiting on the quay for us (many thanks Laureen).
Vroom vroom.

Only a short drive (30 mins or so) round to Bixter, I pulled up by the small, but frustratingly dense windbreak plantation, on Tumblin Road at about 8am.
Despite fully-sanctioned checks of the plantation by two experienced observers who were prepared to inch under the trees on their backs in the hope of finding the owl roosting in the branches, and thorough scrutiny of the edges by 20-odd fellow birders who’d pushed north in the face of the odds, it was pretty clear the Tengmalm’s was not there.
The wonderful householder Jackie wished us all the best, and calling in Shetland birder Jim Nicolson, they did their utmost to help us relocate the bird (brilliant hospitality – many thanks), giving us access to the garden and allowing a long, but fruitless search of the site.
It just wasn’t happening.
I began to reflect on how I would never be able to stare a festive spruce in the baubles again unless there was a drastic improvement in the tree to owl ratio.

Shetland Wrens became a focus (look at that bill!!!, how different is the song etc etc), while Ravens and Red Grouse laughed at us from the mist-shrouded moorland.
The feeling of a monumental long-distance dip was beginning to seep in as surely as the fog and chill of an early Shetland spring crept upon our bones.
Common Frogs and Rock Doves started to receive an unhealthy amount of attention.
This was not good.
Then at about 1.45pm three words drifted across the garden and changed the day.
“It’s at Tresta”.
The vehicle manual for the MG3 says the car can do 0-60mph in just over ten seconds.
Actually it can accelerate a whole lot quicker than that, and we pulled up at Tresta, a click or two down the road, almost before we set off…

In a pine break at the back of Lea Gardens, the Tengmalm’s Owl was dozing just under the crown of a straggly tree, occasionally waking to glare at the small crowd below it.
Top work by visiting birder Michael McKee who dug the mega out of the deep dip chasm and hauled it blinking into the misty afternoon light.
The lovely Rosa Steppanova has carefully planted up the meadow with a collection of spring bulbs which will doubtless be spectacular in future.
Once she learnt what was going on, Rosa stepped on over and had a good ‘scopeful of the Tengmalm’s.
Her verdict?
“It looks like a Hedgehog”.
I could kinda see what she meant, but confusing Hedgehog with Tengmalm’s does perhaps explain why it has been so long since the last one on this superb archipelago was found in 1912.
Tengmalm’s Owl or Tengmalm’s Hedgehog?
Who cares?
Happy birders.

Thanks Jackie, thanks Jim, thanks Mike, thanks Rosa.
The owl got a bit more animated and it became obvious that it had designs on the corpse of a Ringed Plover it had wedged on a branch about four feet away (keen-eyed readers may just be able to make out the bundle of feathers and yellowly legs on the left hand side of the second pic in this entry – it’s at the end of the long horizontal branch).

What a beast.
Once we were fully owled-up and the fog really closed in, we motored back to Lerwick.
Shetland was getting all atmospheric, as the fog welded sky and sea together and Slav Grebe flocks melted into the mist.

Conditions weren’t much better at Lerwick, but around the Shetland Catch quay we were able to pick out Iceland Gull and Long Tailed Ducks amongst the Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots and Eiders.

A startled Otter surfaced just feet below us before crash diving under the quay, as the NorthLink Norseman emerged from the murk to beckon us back to the mainland.

All aboard and setting sail south from Lerwick at 7pm last night (no planes were flying because of the fog), we jammed on our Viking drinking helmets and toasted the Tengmalm’s Owl, the lovely people of Shetland, and of course the stunning landscape.
Owl or not, just go, Shetland is a marvellous place.

When your mind is elsewhere…

I watched the small Canada Goose (Todd’s?) with the Pinks on and off for an hour or two last Sunday, but it was always distant.
No sign of it today though as I walked north from the Sandplant up to Crossens over the high tide.
Earlier part of the wintering Twite flock were pushed over the seawall to feed on the grass/car park between Pleasureland and Ocean Plaza on Southport seafront.
Plenty of geese about at the marsh, including two Barnacles, but the tide fragmented them, with birds on Crossens Inner, in the outer marsh vegetation and large numbers on the fields inland of Crossens Channel out towards Banks.
Merlins zooming around, and clouds of waders swirling over the advancing tide.
One of the male Hen Harriers was over the marsh off Crossens, with Peregrine etc.
My first Coltsfoot of the year was breaking into flower along the pavement just north of the Sandplant too.

A good high tide at the marsh then, but I confess my mind was elsewhere, far far away.
579.5 miles to the north east to be precise.