Monday, 16 April 2018

Possible grey-bellied brant, Banks marsh

Preparations for our now imminent departure to Aus combined with a desire on my part to work as many hours as possible before we go have been somewhat all-consuming in recent weeks and have prevented me from doing much birding. However news of a possible grey-bellied Brant on Banks Marsh just north of Southport peeked my interest and with an unexpected free day today I decided to go and have a look.  Grey-bellied brant is a bit of an enigma, nobody really knows what it is or how to identify it, and even less people have actually seen one. Actually, that doesn't include me, I have seen grey-bellied brant before and it's already on my UK list having seen one at Dundrum, Northern Ireland about five years ago. For what it's worth, this blog post contains a few of my thoughts on the Banks Marsh bird.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The grey willow at the bottom of the garden

At the bottom of the garden we have a self seeded grey willow tree which is probably now at it's full height of about 6m tall. It dominates the garden, it's a beautiful tree much nicer than the ornamental trees which adorn most other gardens in the neighbourhood, and at this time of year it has glorious yellow flowers which are an important source of pollen for early flying insects. It's a real joy to behold and good evidence if any where needed that you don't have to rip out all of the natives and replace them with aliens in order to have a beautiful feature in your garden. Not bad for a free gift from nature.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The last icy blast of winter

Spring might be all around us now, with 200 swallows and 1000 sand martins at Pennington Flash yesterday, and today there was a chorus of at least three singing willow warblers, 15 chiffchaffs, five blackcaps and three Cetti's warblers, whilst at other local sites today there were also little ringed plovers, yellow wagtails and common terns, yet even so, the bird of the day was a hang over from winter. The stunning yet often elusive adult Iceland gull was again in Warrington town centre and showed well on top of the roof of a retail unit. A beautiful bird, it really is brilliant white and has a smart red orbital ring. One of the best Iceland Gulls I've ever seen.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Woodpigeons bathing

I was working near Martin Mere today, so during a break took the opportunity to call in. The weather was pretty awful, but I still managed booming bittern, Mediterranean gull, barn owl and a few avocets. Perhaps best of all, I watched two woodpigeons bathing at close range on the car park. Really smart birds when you see them well, apart from preening and splashing around in the puddles, these birds habitually raised their wings and held them up for up to 30 seconds at a time. I assume it was some kind of bathing / cleaning ritual but I'm not really sure what they were doing.

Monday, 26 March 2018

An unfamiliar song

One of the unexpected pleasures at this time of year is hearing the unfamiliar song of redwings. There are plenty of these winter thrushes passing through our area at the moment on their way back north to their breeding territories in Scandinavia and perhaps a few in Scotland. Mossley Hall farm at Pennington Flash has held a decent sized flock all winter and today I found another flock of around 100 near Haydock. The woodland they were in was full of their song, a really special moment on a warm, sunny, early spring day.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Intertidal surveys

Foulney, Roa and Walney Islands
Sometimes in amongst a plethora of mundane surveys which are bread and butter in the life of the ecologist, I hit the jackpot and something special happens. A full two weeks surveying estuarine birds not only from the ground, but also from the air certainly falls into the special category. It may seem boring and repetitive at times and if I wasn't being paid to do it, I certainly wouldn't chose to sit in the same spot for two weeks through all weathers in the middle of winter to observe the movements of birds on an  estuary. However, given that I am here, it's a great opportunity to learn so much about the way in which the estuary works. and to watch the interaction of the birds with each other and with the tides.

Fortunately my day up in the helicopter coincided with the nicest day of the two weeks!

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Iceland Gull, Warrington town centre

There's been an adult Iceland gull knocking around Warrington town centre for a few winters now, usually around the college and I've had a few failed attempts myself to see it. John Tymon saw it on Thursday morning on Tescos car park, and again early this morning, so I decided to have another go at seeing it. I saw it flying almost as soon as I arrived, but it landed on the flat roof of Linde, opposite the Premier Inn on the A49 and was completely out of sight. I hung around for a while and eventually it flew across the road and landed in full view on the roof of Warrington Business School, where it stayed for about 10 minutes before flying back to Linde.  Unfortunately when it's on Linde roof, you wouldn't even know that there is a bird there let alone what species it is, it's just completely out of view.

As often seems to be the case at this time of year, all of my photos seem to be dull and grey, and of gulls or other black and white birds! Stick with it, all will change soon.......

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Beauty in the beast at Pennington Flash

So the "Beast from the East" arrived today and what a beautiful and dramatic day it was.  Bitterly cold for most of the day with an easterly wind which cut right through you, but wonderful squally snow showers and bright blue sunshine made it the best day of the year so far.

We might still be in the grip of winter but Mediterranean birds abounded at the flash today, the highlight being two pristine adult Mediterranean gulls which didn't seem to care about the cold and were displaying right outside Horrock's hide, with a third adult on the spit. Another species of gull more at home in the Mediterranean, the regular 3rd winter yellow-legged gull still harasses the coots for mussels, whilst three little egrets flew over the spit which held two snipe and four oystercatchers. Male goldeneye were displaying on the flash and several goosander drifted past.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Mediterranean Gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, Leigh

There's been a cracking adult Mediterranean gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal  for the past two weeks, between Leigh bridge and the Atherleigh way. This is undoubtedly one of the birds which roosts at Pennington Flash, but it shows a bit better here!

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Overdosing on the hooded crow in Ashton

A few more photos of the hooded crow in Ashton-in-Makerfield. In bright sunlight such as today the pale grey in its plumage looks almost silvery, in fact it's a really smart bird.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Glaucous gull, Hollingworth Lake

For the past week or two there has been a very obliging juvenile glaucous gull at Hollingworth Lake, near Rochdale in Greater Manchester. I've put off going to see it for a number of reasons, not least because I don't like the place and the traffic can be very bad in that area, but also because I didn't really want to see the bird surrounded by the massed ranks of photographers no doubt trying to feed it meal worms or fish and chips or some such thing. However having heard one or two encouraging and reassuring reports, today I finally succumbed, and when Elaine announced that she'd liked to go for a walk, I suggested Hollingworth Lake.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

A week at the roost 27th January - 2nd February 2018

Caspian gull - © John Tymon

Another week at the Pennington Flash gull roost and not much has changed except that gull numbers have gone down considerably, especially the larger gulls. The Caspian gull is still around, seen on four out of seven nights and the Mediterranean gull was seen most nights. The Iceland gull has become very intermittent, only seen on three nights this week and even the yellow-legged gull has become unreliable and a bit more difficult.

When the Caspian gull does appear it can come in quite close and sometimes relatively early, as can be seen from John Tymons excellent photos here. Although at a distance its bill still seems quite dark, in fact at close range it now has a distinctly pink base.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Hooded crow, Ashton-in-Makerfield

This morning I called in for another look at the hooded crow at Ashton-in-Makerfield. It was my first visit to the site since last Wednesday when I had a run in with a photographer which left me a bit disillusioned and depressed. I didn't even leave my car today, I simply pulled up at the side of the grass, with the sun behind me, put the window down and waited. After a few minutes the bird duly obliged and landed just a few metres from my car and I was able to take a few photos without chasing it or causing any disturbance. Eventually it was inevitably flushed by a photographer who decided to walk straight across the grass towards it, at which point the bird flew up into the trees and I left. No doubt this chap got some half silhouetted shots of a bird looking down from a tree, appearing harassed and afraid, which he's probably filed away under the heading wildlife photographs. Meanwhile, I'll have to content myself with these photos of the bird on the ground, looking relaxed and natural.

Friday, 26 January 2018

A week at the roost 20th - 26th January 2018

Caspian Gull, 2nd winter. 
It might not be the largest roost in the area, but the Pennington Flash gull roost certainly keeps delivering at the moment, though nothing is ever certain. Over the past seven days an amazing 11 species of gull have been present at one time or another, with the 2nd winter Caspian gull the star attraction and drawing the crowds from far and wide.

The Caspian gull has been seen in the roost on four out of the past seven days, and other regular scarcities being recorded are 2nd winter Iceland gull on six out of seven, 3rd winter yellow-legged gull on four out of seven and adult Mediterranean gull on five out of seven.  Two other species have been new into the roost this week and have been single day birds, an adult little gull on Saturday and a 2nd winter kittiwake on Thursday, the latter being a new species at the Flash for me. What's not clear is where the gulls roost when they are not roosting at the Flash.

It's not just about the gulls though, distantly a small starling murmuration of a thousand or two birds is often over Ramsdales reedbed, whilst the usual 800 - 1000 jackdaws swirl around over the gulls. All in all, it's a great experience!

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Hooded Crow, a Manchester county mega

Just last week I returned from Cyprus where hooded crows were common town birds, and I barely looked twice at them, so that's my excuse for almost walking past one today without it even registering what it was!

I'd got Elaine to drop me off at the layby near Haydock Island on her way to work. My plan was to walk north up the A49 past the entrance to Haydock Park Race course and then follow a footpath from Heath road down to Sandy Lane and make my way home through Golborne. The reason for doing this was to try to see a reported flock of around 100 brambling which had been seen in that area.

Suddenly as I walked down Heath Road I became aware that I was walking past a hooded crow! It was just there, on the grass about 10m away from me. I really couldn't believe it. There had been one near Haydock Island before Christmas and this was undoubtedly it, but the good news was, this former St Helens mega was now in Greater Manchester!

The light was poor and I fired off a few poor photos and then put the news out, sparking a mini twitch! It turns out that although there are a few records of hooded crow in Greater Manchester, they are from so long ago that virtually every Greater Manchester lister needs it for their list! I didn't see any sign of the brambling.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

A strange gull roost

Iceland gull, 2nd winter

A strange gull roost at Pennington Flash this afternoon, for a long time there seemed to be more birders than birds, with 10 scopes looking out over the flash where the only birds present were a handful of very distant large gulls in Ramsdales and 50 or so black-headed gulls coming to bread even more distantly on the car park.

Then at 16:25, and with the centre of the flash still flat calm and devoid of gulls, the fog rolled in and we could see even less and with sunset at 16:28, the afternoon seemed to be over. Miraculously though after a 5 minute white out the fog lifted, and though there were still very few birds compared to some roosts, a flock of a few hundred black-headed gulls and perhaps a couple of hundred large gulls was revealed quite close to us.

Scanning through the flock in what little daylight remained we managed to pick out the 2nd winter Iceland gull, 3rd winter yellow-legged gull, adult Mediterranean gull and best of all my first ever roosting adult winter little gull. Of course I have seen this species at the flash before, usually on early spring passage in March or April, but I've never actually managed to see one in the roost before so a decent night all round. No sign of the now regular Caspian gull, but it may well still be around. Three different species of white winged gull in the same roost, it's a pity that a glaucous gull didn't turn up to complete the set. Surely that really would have been a Pennington Flash record!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Heuglin's Gull, Larnaca, Cyprus

One of the reasons I like to visit Cyprus in the winter is to see perhaps the most enigmatic of all Western Palearctic gulls Heuglin's gull Larus heuglini, also sometimes called Western Siberian or Tundra gull.  There is some argument as to whether or not this bird warrants separate species status or if it is simply another race of lesser black back gull, but whichever way, it's a cracking bird.

Over the past few days I've seen several, all either adults or 3rd winters and I've noticed how variable they can be in both mantle colour and size. I've mentioned previously that 3rd winters always seem to look darker to me, close to Baltic Gull L.f. fuscus, whereas adults look paler more like our western European lesser black-back L.f. graellsii. Apart from some very distant birds at Mandria I've only ever seen quite small looking Heuglin's before yesterday. However I found this adult on the waste water reservoirs at Larnaca yesterday, and it's a monster. Notice the size compared to the nearby Caspians. In the flight photos you can also see the late moult typical of the species. P10 is virtually non-existant and P9 is very small and seems to be just coming through whilst the secondaries are very tatty looking and clearly in the process of moulting. Sorry about the poor quality of the photos, they were taken on my phone, through my telescope using a homemade adapter and on 60x maginification, then cropped. To be honest it's a miracle that they are as good as they are, especially the flight photos.

Caspian Gulls, Larnaca, Cyprus

Living in North West England, Caspian gull is still quite a rarity in my area and I don't get to see very many, so visiting a place like Cyprus where there are lots in winter is a good way to try to get to grips with them. At Larnaca in particular they were very common during my stay there this week, far outnumbering all other big gulls even yellow-legged. The area around Larnaca waste water treatment works and the salt lake at Yialos held at least 300 birds, and there were other smaller flocks at Larnaca salt lake and elsewhere.

Caspian gull is often said to have a distinct jizz, but unless you see a lot of them it's hard to get to grips with this feature. By the end of this short birding break I was at least able to have an appreciation of the jizz of a Caspian, even if it still won't necessarily be obvious in the gull roost at Pennington Flash.

One of the features I noticed of birds in flight was the amazing similarity in jizz to pomarine skua, you can even see this in the photo of the adult above, it's a great big barrel chested bird.

Bits and pieces from around Larnaca, Cyprus

When I'm abroad in sunnier climes, I love seeing species which I wouldn't necessarily expect to see in the Mediterranean but which are common or frequent visitors to the UK.  I suspect that the majority of birders who visit Cyprus don't go for the European white-fronted geese, yet here are five of them feeding on fields near Larnaca airport and occasionally flying onto the water treatment reservoirs.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Lady's Mile and Akrotiri

If you were to ask me my favourite birding site in the whole of Cyprus I would say Lady's Mile on the Akrotiri peninsular, and this is one of the main the reasons why, an adult Armenian gull in winter plumage. What a bird, one of the most beautiful of all of the gulls and this species alone makes winter my favourite season to visit Cyprus. Lady's Mile is a great place to see Armenian gull, and the Oasis Fish Restaurant  right on the pebble beach is an ideal place to see them from. Today there were about 30 Armenian gulls on the water in front of the restaurant, along with a nice selection of Caspian, yellow-legged, slender-billed and black-headed. I've seen some great views of some very special birds today, but this bird was the highlight.

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