Spring 2018: Has anyone tried switching it off & back on again?

Warm enough last night to send the Natterjack Toads absolutely bananas in the dunes – they were singing their toady little bits off, but come this morning, we were back to February windchill.
This spring needs a serious reboot right up the equinox.
You have to admire the squadrons of Meadow Pipits for pushing north despite it all, but I can’t wait for some real spring passage.
It’s late this year and no mistake but our friends at the BTO have some good news at least or maybe they’re just trying to keep our spirits up after yet another day of shivering Wheatears and Chiffchaffs and opportunist Sprawks.
Yesterday’s blue skies were great – the resident Buzzards on Ainsdale LNR loved it, and as Northern Dune Tiger Beetles emerged to join the Natterjacks, Great Crested Newts and Vernal Mining Bees already out, a single Swallow swept past my office at Ainsdale – heading south!

Admittedly today was a bit better – four Wheatears at Weld Road at lunchtime (two males, two females – is it me or has anyone else noticed female Wheatears seem to be coming through earlier this year?), with three Swallows heading in the right direction there too, and another four around the office in the afternoon ahead of the rain front.
Early Grey moth materialised and Mipits kept on keepin’ on.

Someone tell me this is going to get better soon. Please.

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Not before time…

I’m sure there were lots of them about today in the calm, bright conditions, but say what you like, your first Wheatears of the year should always put a crease in your jim-jams and a smile on your face.
Mine (not counting winterers in Gambia during January) were feeding quietly in stubble off Engine Lane this afternoon, a male and female.
She was keeping a low profile, but he was bounding about like they do.
Fine birds, if a little distant.

Earlier at Haskayne Cutting, two singing Chiffchaffs, Yellowhammer etc, with Mipits, Buzzards, Peregrine and Kestrel over.

There seems to have been something of an influx of Jays, with a bird dropping in from high up at Dempsey Towers last night, and at least four at the cutting today, including two rooting about at the edges of the ploughed fields.

Sound in principle

A bitter wind and icy icy rain quickly extinguished any foolish misconceptions about a bit of spring birding at Marshside this morning.
Yes, the pair of adult Med Gulls were looking chipper, if distant, up at Polly’s Pool, yes parties of Meadow Pipits were dropping in on the way north and yes, Coltsfoot, Common Whitlow Grass and Daffodils were flowering away.
But the freezing edge to the wind saw Buff Tailed Bumblebees stumbling off to oblivion and any hopes of Wheatears and singing Willow Warblers etc going the same way.
Hunting Merlin, stacks of Pinkies and Common Buzzards said it was still winter for this morning at least.
I took cover at Nels Hide and watched the pair of Scaup fishing for an hour or so.

Ruff, Blackwits, Golden Plover and a few squadrons of Avocets about too, but really? Gimme a duvet until the mercury starts to rise again…

Where there’s no sense…

Annoying flurries of powdery snow and the windchill from hell were hardly the best motivators for the “Spring Stroll” I was leading at Rimrose Valley this morning.
Optimism was not reinforced when the first five birds I saw were Redwings shivering in the branches by the Beach Road entrance to the site.
Thanks then to all the Rimrose Valley Friends who came along, swaddled against the cold, and showed such interest and enthusiasm, even when a Chiffchaff desperately trying to avoid freezing on an iced-up pool as it frantically searched for sustenance was the best example I could show them of the miracle of migration!

A few small parties of Meadow Pipits went through, Groundsel was almost flowering, and we saw Sparrowhawk, Buzzard and Bullfinch, but that was the best of it, and chilled to the bone we headed for the hills just after midday.
Even the Common Frogs had suspended their seasonal orgy in the bitter cold.
I should have stayed home of course, but where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling, so I popped up to Weld Road and Marshside in the afternoon.
Conditions had barely improved, although more Meadow Pipits and Pied Wags were passing, and dropping in to feed.

Ringed Plover and the growing numbers of Avocets looked seriously cheesed off, and I for one, could not blame them.
Getting a bit bored with this cold stuff now.

Siskin sawn.

As we live in a strict equal opportunities household it was no surprise to nip home at lunchtime today to discover Mrs D furiously recycling old roof battening with the reciprocal saw out back, creating piles of kindling for the stove.
No surprise given her enthusiasm for the project, which can sometimes get a little out of control.
This should be obvious to anyone who tries to negotiate the gloom and cobwebs in the loft at Dempsey Towers…where did all those loose floorboards go?
All that drying old wood had been resting on them.
But floorboards it turns out, also make great kindling.
Which is a surprise too, certainly to anyone who tries to traverse our loft now.
But the real surprise was that for all the growling of the saw and clatter as the battens transformed from dusty old planking and tumbled to the ground as oven ready kindling, not ten feet away a fine male Siskin was singing.

The first one to call in this spring as passage begins to pick up, it was a classic glowing canary yellow example, which soon dropped onto the sunflower seeds and stuffed its face for five minutes, completely ignoring us.
Why are Siskins so much bolder than other finches?
They often let me walk to within a few feet when they settle onto the feeders here.
This one was even ringed (metal on the right leg) so it’s not as if it hasn’t had close encounters with human beans before….

Any day now…

There is a fine fringe of seed-rich debris (dumped by the last series of high tides) up at Weld Road, but there were plenty of folk out enjoying the spring light and mild conditions there too this morning.
A steady trickle of Meadow Pipits and Pied Wags kept my attention, but I was hoping for a few Redpolls in the old tideline – they have favoured this food source here for the last few springs.
No sign today, but singing Skylarks lifted the spirits, and it felt mild enough for a Wheatear – the first will be along any day now.

Up at Marshside a few thousand Pink Feet were on the outer marsh still and the Scaup was lingering.
The area in front of Sandgrounders Hide was as busy as the flower stand at a 24 hour garage on Mother’s Day, as the Black Headed Gulls reclaimed the colony for the breeding season.
Plenty of scraping and bowing.
Two Goldcrest, Song Thrush, Reed Bunting and Meadow Pipits around what remains of the Forest of Bale (happy days) on the other side of the road, and three Stonechats below it.
Up at Crossens two crisp Barnacle Geese were in with the Pinks.
Coltsfoot and Common Whitlow Grass flowering.

Raw thaw

Still plenty of ice around the edges and it was cold, despite the thaw at Marshside today, but at least the windchill was calming down, and dabblers could dabble again.
Shovelers of the world rejoice…
Bird numbers were correspondingly low, with flurries of BHGs dancing over the outer marsh around areas still flooded by the high tide earlier in the day, Snipe zipping around looking for somewhere to feed and a big female Peregrine sitting snooty aloof out near the mudflats.
A few thousand Pink Feet were strung out around Crossens Outer, with Wigeon etc and Skylarks were even trying to sing.

The light was poor though and by 3.15pm it was dark enough for the Barn Owl to be out hunting the bank from Marshside Road up past Sandgrounders Hide (blurry shot through a rain-streaked hide window below) and on towards Crossens.

Didn’t look at Marshside One – there’ll be plenty of time for that when spring rolls back in…not long now.

East of Two Dogs

Having spent another hour this morning trying to will in a Hawfinch to the garden feeders, I got tired of waiting and started to make other plans.
Nothing wrong with the garden of course – stacks of finches, female Blackcap still, Blackbirds, Jackdaws and Song Thrushes, and another garden tick today – an overflying Black Tailed Godwit to complement the startled Little Egret that was blown in briefly like a storm-tossed Tesco bag while Emma was flashing her petticoats about on Thursday.
The six marvellous Hawfinches that flew past me at Marshside in October feel a long time ago now, and to be honest I thought I might have seen more in this winter’s huge invasion, but they are thin on the ground our way (and completely invisible at Dempsey Towers, despite the numerous prayers, seeds and incantations).
So I decided to pop down the M57 to Stadt Moers Park to look for the two Chris Tynan found earlier in the year.
Chris has seen ’em a few times since, so I thought they were worth a punt.
I stopped off to officially welcome spring with flowering Lesser Celandines on the mosses, then moved on south.

Although these birds favour a small copse immediately to the right of the Halsnead Avenue entrance to the park in Prescot/Whiston they took a bit of digging out.
As usual these big finches are unobtrusive at best, and seriously flighty, especially when there are plenty of Saturday afternoon dog walkers in the park.
Early morning may be better.
Pleasant enough strolling around the park looking for them though, with Buzzards, Lapwing Bullfinch and Fieldfare, commoner finches and titmice.

It was a dark, grey, cold afternoon, and I was numb in the nether regions long before I began to hear that weird loud, yet oddly muffled, “pijk pijk pijk” call and the bruisers flew in.
Why do Hawfinches sound like they are calling from a parallel universe (or at least from another room)?
No chance of a close approach of course, these things are way too wary for that, but by standing a good distance back against the woodland edge, they came up into the upper branches of the small copse and the female even sat still long enough for me to take some rubbishy zoom shots in the gloom.

Fine birds, especially only 20 minutes or so from home – I wonder how many others are still lurking undiscovered in similar woodland/parks?

Automatically sunshine

Best thing about a big cold weather system seeping in from the east is the blue-vaulted wall to wall sunshine that comes along with it.
Great to be out in the lovely bright light, but then everyone else feels the same, so once I’d hunted down a necessary fish (don’t ask), I headed inland as more and more vehicles headed for the coast.
I whizzed past Marshside (even though it’s ace, bird numbers do drop with cold weather here, and I’d already checked out the miserable looking February Avocet flock once this weekend thanks) and pulled into Mere Sands, to try to crack the Chinese puzzle that is the most idiosyncratic parking meter in the western hemisphere.
Sometimes it takes your money. Sometimes it don’t.

Bullfinches were furtive round the feeders – hardly surprising as there were plenty of Sunday strollers (including myself) about, and 4-5 Goosanders still left silvery trails in the shadowy green waters of the main mere.
The woods were quiet, but it was a fine afternoon and I finally came across a pair of Nuthatches, calling like demented Clangers as they prospected around one of the many nestboxes on site.

Gotta love a good Nuthatch.

Bill please.

I crawled through the rush hour stuff, tootled over Snake Pass and then turned off to Lady Bower and Dambusters territory in the Peak District this morning.
Time to huff and puff up an unreasonably steep 500m worth of mud and pain out of the trees, and scan the larch edge above Howden Reservoir.

Up to 12 Parrot Crossbills have been dropping in to drink at a puddle on the track high above the 7km marker here this winter, and I wanted to catch up with them before they cleared off for spring.
Once my heart had travelled back down from my throat into my chest, and eased off on the thrash metal beat (that is one steep walk) I settled down and watched the area from 10am to 2pm.
After 15 minutes or so, a single male Common Crossbill came in calling loudly to perch above the pools for a few minutes, but cleared off.
Shortly afterwards crossbills began arriving in numbers, so that there were at least 27 in the branches above the pool.
This happened three times in the four hours I was there, and each time the single Common Crossbill came in first, as if he was checking the place out before getting his mates.

There were clearly several larger, thicker bull-necked birds, with much heavier, deeper bills and gently sloping foreheads – through the ‘scope they looked good for Parrots.

As a chilly, but highly enjoyable bit of birdin’ progressed I was joined by Garry Taylor from Spurn et al, and he explained that the birds have been very approachable all winter.
I felt a bit daft having hung back all morning for fear of disturbing ’em, so we worked our way around the clearing to look down on the puddle and trees from about 20 feet away.
We got superb views of the crossbills as they swept in calling on several occasions, bringing Siskins with them.

It was a wonderful crossbill class – at least four birds were obviously Parrots, but some weren’t so straightforward as Commons and Parrots dropped in to drink.

Answers on a postcard…
It was a great opportunity to compare the loud higher pitched Common calls with the deeper notes of the Parrots.
Sometimes the latter called almost like a “chucking” Blackbird does at dusk (not the loud alarm “chink, chink” call, the softer one).
Some bird had wingbars, some didn’t, structure and jizz changed as the birds shifted position in the branches – fascinating stuff.
The Parrots often stripped bark from the upper rotting branches (apologies for the lousy shot below) – they seemed to indulge in this more than the Commons…
Can someone with better knowledge of crossbill behaviour explain these antics to me please?

As the bone-numbing sphagum damp crept up my legs, I pondered – on a hillside surrounded by huge expanses of water like Lady Bower and Howden Reservoir, there must have been many similar puddles for the crossbills to drink from – so why are they so faithful to this pool?
Perhaps the decaying trees allow them to perch up safely and keep an eye out for predators in between slurps at this particular watering hole.
Why are these wanderers so tied to a single puddle?
Imagine if your diet comprised of foraging almost exclusively on larch and pine cones, just think how thirsty you’d be.
You can experience it for yourself of course – simply quaff a bottle or two of resiny Retsina tonight – I bet you drink LOTS of water tomorrow morning…
It’ll be like being a crossbill, except with a hangover.
Any crossbills are great to watch of course, especially so close, but I’ve been trying to catch up with the big boys for a number of years now, so it was a thoroughly satisfying morning all round.
Gotcha, you parroty b*stards.
(If anyone is tempted by the Howden Res Parrot Crossbills, I am informed that the access road to the site is closed to vehicles on Sundays and on Saturdays from Easter to October – so that’s a 14km walk AND a certain muddy slope to negotiate to get to the birds if you go then).