Monday 29 January 2018

A Skylark Kind Of Day

It's wet and miserable outside again as I write, so I want to rewind to Friday when it was a glorious sunny day, a Skylark kind of day. I was carrying out one of my wintering bird surveys on an area of Lancashire mossland, and I had clear skies with wall to wall sunshine, with just a whisper of a northeasterly breeze.

 The Moss

One of the outstanding observations that I made this morning was of a Red Admiral butterfly that danced passed me in the warmth of the late morning sunshine! I was hoping to get a photograph of this red, black and white sprite, wakened from it's slumber by the warming sun, but it fluttered past without dallying!

 Red Admiral (but not from today)

An increase in bird song was noticeable this morning and out of four Song Thrushes, two were singing males. Skylarks were also singing this morning and it lifted my heart to gaze up towards the heavens to hear this beautiful songster, without being able to see him. Percy Shelley described the Skylark perfectly in his poem 'To a Skylark', of which you can find a selection below; I couldn't have put it better myself (I wish)!

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are bright'ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight, 

In addition to the singing 'blithe spirit' a number of Skylarks were moving around and foraging in the stubbles and in total I counted 55. Three species of raptor graced me with their presence in the form of a female Kestrel, Buzzard and a most handsome adult male Sparrowhawk, looking dapper in his slate blue-grey and orange plumage; gorgeous!

A few Pink-footed Geese were on the move, 140 in total, and a pair of Stonechats remain, but the pond pair seem to have moved on. There were good numbers of Linnets feeding in various pockets of suitable habitat and I had 221 in total along with 17 of their clown-faced cousins, the Goldfinch.


Of all the sites that I am covering at the moment this is the only one where I am seeing Grey Partridges, and as ever it was a delight to see six of these classic farmland birds 'whirr' away from me across a ploughed field. A Mistle Thrush and two Snipes later my survey was over and it was time to return to my car and head home for a coffee and a read in the sun lounge!

I've just pulled a note book off my book shelf from 1984 and looked at two dates; 26th January 1984, 34 years ago to the day of the above survey, and 29th January 1984, 34 years ago today.

On 26th January 1984 I was birding during the afternoon at Marton Mere LNR, which is a cracking wetland reserve to the east of Blackpool in Lancashire. The weather was totally different to my survey above as it was dull and cold with lying snow! There are a few records that stand out, not because of the rarity of the species, but because of the count and these are five Short-eared Owls, 52 Snipe, eight Woodcocks and 50 Pochards.

 Short-eared Owl

Now the cold weather with an easterly wind will have undoubtedly moved some of these birds on to the site in these numbers, but a number of these species have seriously declined and you just don't record them in the numbers of 30-40 years ago, with Pochard being an obvious sad example.

The Wetland and Wildfowl Trust (WWT) carried out assessments of the sex ratio of Pochard counts undertaken in countries across Europe and into North Africa in January 2016, for comparison with results from surveys carried out over the same area in January 1989 and January 1990. The WWT found that the proportion of males in the population had increased significantly between 1989/90 and 2016 from 0.6 to 0.7. What is interesting, is that the sex ratio of Pochards broods is approximately 1:1 at hatching, and  the strong male bias among adult birds is indicative of lower survival of females compared with males. The authors of the report suggest that the factors adversely affecting female survival rate may partly explain the decline in overall Pochard abundance.

On this day in 1984 I was birding at a few of the sites that I still count as part of my patch, namely Rossall School and Rossall Point. And again it is a tale of declining and changing bird populations. My first port of call was Rossall School and again it was dull and cold. Just behind the sea wall was a lovely flock of 20, yes 20, Snow Buntings! You're lucky now to get two, if any at all some winters!

Moving on to Rossall Point I had a further eight Snow Bunts with 20 Twite; nice! So what's changed? There has been a general decline in the population of these two species due to changes in habitat on their breeding grounds, and climate change is having an effect, particularly on Snow Buntings. Another factor is undoubtedly disturbance at a local level. At both sites the area is now over run with dogs and dog walkers. There are some well behaved dog walkers who keep their dogs on a lead, but sadly the majority don't, and instead of having just one dog, 2 or 3 seems to be becoming the norm. I think I'll stop there, because I could go on about the disturbance to wildlife caused by a very high percentage of dog walkers, who give the wildlife loving conscientious dog walkers a bad name!

It's more wintering bird surveys for me this week if the weather behaves and I'll be sure to keep you posted!

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Sheep Wrecked

'Sheep Wrecked' is an expression that George Monbiot would use to describe the habitat/landscape that I was undertaking a bird survey in yesterday afternoon; over-grazed, poached and gappy hedgerows with the bottoms eaten out. Nevertheless, I had work to do and spent three hours surveying under full cloud cover with a 4-5 westerly wind. Oh, and it was cold!

 Sheep Wrecked

I recorded 24 species which is probably what I would expect based on the habitat and time of the year. I was surprised at the lack of Pink-footed Geese moving and all I had was a group of four flying west. Other fly-overs included two vocal Buzzards and a couple of Cormorants.

I was first aware of the Buzzards because a large flock of Gulls got up, including 622 Black-headed Gulls, and then out of the melee the two Buzzards appeared. An adult male Sparrowhawk spooked some of the local Blackbirds, and the only other raptor I had was a male Kestrel.

There are very few Thrushes around at the moment and just three Redwings and five Fieldfares was testament to this. One theory is a lack of berries because of storms before Christmas removing what was left from the trees. I can buy into that.

And that was it, well of anything of note anyway. It's going to be windy over the next couple of days, but I'm hoping that I'll be back out towards weekend.

Sunday 14 January 2018

Half Decent Weather

I always seem to be moaning about the weather, but this winter I feel somewhat justified as it seems to be worse than ever. I suppose all the weather statistics at the end of winter will either prove of disprove my feelings. And because of the weather it has been tricky getting out either on the patch at weekends or during the week for work.

Mid-week last week I was at my coastal winter bird survey site, with some half decent weather, that covers part of an estuary as well as improved farmland, and also that very ordinary pond that I have mentioned a few times before with the wintering wildfowl. My survey started on the improved grassland with a fairly large count of 21 Magpies. Usually I expect to record Little Egret down on the intertidal stretch of the river, but on this morning I had one on one of the farmland ponds!


The aforementioned bland pond held 30 Teal, so I was quite pleased with that. Raptors were thin on the ground except for three Buzzards, and I am finding now that Buzzard is the commonest raptor that I record when I am out birding. When I started birding in the 1970s Sparrowhawks were scarce, and were probably still recovering from the DDT caused population crash. Ten years on and they became very common, but I don't see them too often now, and my gut feeling is that they are being persecuted by numerous idiots within the shooting and pigeon keeping fraternity!

Close to the river some Pink-footed Geese were feeding in adjacent fields and I counted 778 in total. I had a good look through them and couldn't see any other than Pinkies. Out on the mudflats a flock of 214 Curlews switched from feeding, to preening, to roosting, to feeding and were in the company of 40 Black-tailed Godwits and 24 Redshanks.

The weather for this coming week isn't looking good, other than for catching up on paperwork in the office! I hope it changes!

Tuesday 9 January 2018

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Birders...

...sometimes get kyboshed! On Sunday morning the plan was to go to Cockerham to have a look at our latest ringing/birding site, where the owners have given permission for ringing group members and their vehicles to access their private land. A variety of habitat can be found at the site, but one area of interest are some wet fields where we hope to catch and ring Snipe. The idea was to have a look and get an idea of how many Snipe were present. However, after three days of frost I guessed that any water would be frozen and Snipe departed for the coast, so it will have to wait until next weekend.

Instead, Gail and I headed down to the estuary, my second visit in as many days. It was a glorious morning with clear blue skies, virtually no wind and a frost. A quick look on the reservoir revealed a number of Tufted Ducks, plus a respectable count of 13 Little Grebes.

 The path through the 'enchanted' hawthorns that leads
to the estuary!

Little Grebe

Out on the river along the saltmarsh edge was 172 Teal and 90 Wigeon, and further out on the mudflats 25 Shelducks. A Goldcrest and a Kestrel was the only other species of note that we recorded, and we headed back to the car. We didn't see a great deal but it was a pleasure to be out, and it was more of a 'leg stretch', than a serious birding trip!

Sunday 7 January 2018

Wood Pigs Not War Pigs

It was clear and cold yesterday, with a 15 - 20 mph northerly wind, that my Norfolk friends would call a 'lazy' wind because it blows through you and not round you! I bumped in to Ian just as it was coming light and we walked down to the estuary.

The main feature of the morning was a southeasterly movement of Woodpigeons and in total we had 378 cross the river and head southeast. Besides where were they going and why, the other question was where had they come from? Woodpigeons do often move ahead of cold weather, but up until fairly recently it has been mild with just a couple of days of frosty weather. My guess is that it was a weather related movement, and probably a cold weather movement from further north.

Out on the estuary was a single adult Whooper Swan with a supporting cast of 2,120 Pink-footed Geese, 71 Curlews, 20 Teal (probably nearly ten times as this tucked away somewhere), 40 Wigeon, 135 Lapwings, 12 Shelducks, 80 Dunlin and a single Little Egret.


We had a look on the saltmarsh and there were 47 Snipe and surprisingly just one Rock Pipit. Visiting parent and in-laws for the rest of the day meant it was an early finish for me. There's always tomorrow!

The Stonechats Are Back

I spent a very pleasurable afternoon on Friday on my mossland wintering bird survey site! By the end of the afternoon I had clear skies and there was just a hint of a crisp northerly wind.

Woodpigeons have been a feature of recent days with numbers moving in various locations in the UK, likely as a response to cold weather. I had a flock of 132 Friday afternoon with 13 of their Stock Dove cousins for company.

 There's a line of old Birch trees on this patch of mossalnd that I have become 
very attached to, as they are the only trees for miles around. I always look 
forward to renewing my acquaintance to see what lies within!

I haven't seen many wintering Thrushes for a week or so now on my travels, and Friday was no exception, but I did record four Song Thrushes and up to three Mistle Thrushes. Amongst the usual corvids found on farmland it's always a pleasure to record Ravens, and I had a single bird heading high north. Even though Ravens are increasing in numbers with perhaps less pressure from game keepers (although you wouldn't think so with illegal raptor persecution in the uplands), it's always great to see them as they were once scarce in lowland Lancs.

 Since I started this survey in September I have passed this patch of Broccoli 
in one of the fields and I have always thought that it looks like a piece of 
remnant rain forest in miniature!

Three raptor species made it on to the pages of my notebook; a female Kestrel and Sparrowhawk, and two Buzzards. One of the Buzzards was a leucistic bird and it gave me a bit of start, as for a split second I thought it was a pale morph Rough-legged, but I soon dispelled that thought almost as soon as it popped in to my head! In fact when I located my 'thinking cap' I remembered that I had seen this bird earlier in the winter.

There wasn't many farmland passerines about other than a flock of 24 Linnets, three Reed Buntings and a handful of Skylarks. But, the Stonechats had returned and I had another pair making it four birds. The first pair were back around the pond that I had recorded them at until some frosty weather had moved them on, and I found another pair feeding in a grassy margin alongside a ditch in another part of my survey area.


Five Grey Partridges rounded off a pleasant afternoon; nothing unusual but just nice to be out even though it was work!