Friday 22 March 2024

Black Magic

On Tuesday of this week, Gail and I completed the last of our wintering bird surveys. The forecast was a bit hit and miss, and we had to do the first 20 minutes of the survey from the car because of rain, but later in the morning the clouds cleared and it was quite a glorious morning. 

Skylarks have been a constant backdrop to these surveys over recent weeks, and this morning we had two singing from on high, with a further four firmly on the deck. In the same field that the Skylarks were so beautifully singing over, were 98 Woodpigeons and four Stock Doves. Contrast the song of the Skylark to the harsh croak of the Raven that flew over us, but Ravens are magical in other ways. 

A few Pink-footed Geese were on the move, and I mean a few, with just 63 counted, heading north. A flock of 110 Golden Plovers were heading west as always (towards the estuary), and we had a singing Chiffchaff, our only summer migrant of the morning. Three Little Egrets, and the same number of Tree Sparrows, plus a single Buzzard, were the highlights. I suppose for us, completing our last wintering bird survey of the winter, formally brings winter to a close. 
Back home after dark, I was getting some logs from my log store, when the black magic happened. I heard a call that was at once unfamiliar, but yet vaguely familiar, of a group of birds flying over in the darkness. I heard a group at 1950, 1955 and again at 2004. The penny dropped, and I realised what they were, so I went back indoors to double check that I what I heard were groups of Common Scoters flying over in the dark. And indeed, that is exactly what they were. 

It's hard to describe the call. The Collins Bird Guide describes the nocturnal flight call, which is given by the male, as a soft piping 'pyu' regularly repeated about once per second. That'll do. I'm not 'techie' enough to post an audio file on my blog, so if you want to hear what a Common Scoter sounds like, search in Google, or click HERE, and this will take you to the Common Scoter page on Xeno-Canto, where you can listen to wildlife sounds from around the world. 
The Common Scoters will have been coming in off the Irish Sea, to start their over-land migration to the North Sea, and then on to breeding grounds in Scandinavia. The last time I heard Common Scoters over the garden was during lockdown, and in that year, they were reported by lots of birders across the UK. 

It was wet during the morning on the following day, but by lunchtime it had cleared up, and the sun was out. Even though the wind was north-westerly, I thought that it would be likely that a Wheatear or two would be about, so Gail and I headed to the coast at Rossall to have a look on the golf course, a good place for an early Wheatear. Sure enough, after a few minutes, a male Wheatear was flying from post to post in front of us. It looked resplendent in the sunshine, and I managed a few distant shots, as you will see below. 
That was the only migrant that we had though. A pair of Coots had a nest on the pool, and one of the adults was incubating. On the walk back we kept to the shore, and on the Honeycomb Worm reef, at least 40 Turnstones were feeding. Just off the reef, two pairs of Eiders were loafing on the ebbing tide. 

The forecast for this morning was for a 20 mph westerly wind, and there was a morning tide, so I decided to head again to Rossall and have a look on the sea. I was hoping for an early Sandwich Tern, but that wasn't to be. 

Surprisingly, given the wind strength, Meadow Pipits were heading north across the bay, heading towards Walney. The coast runs east to west here, where Liverpool and Morecambe Bays meet, and any visible migration of passerines is usually easterly in the spring and westerly in the autumn. However, sometimes, depending on the wind strength and direction, and the visibility, they will cross the bay at its widest point. I logged 53 doing just that, but there was quite a lot more, because sometimes when I was counting Kittiwakes or watching a Red-throated Diver for example, I could see Mipits whizzing past my scope view at sea. 
Meadow Pipit
The Kittiwakes were a little bit of a surprise this morning, and we (Howard had joined me) had 114 motoring east into the bay. They were a long way out, and they were shearing up and down, appearing above, and then disappearing below the horizon. If I managed to stay with a few as they headed east, they were slowly starting to climb, so just like the Common Scoters, they would have been heading across land to the North Sea. 

The Red-throated Divers were heading in the wrong direction, as out of the seven that we recorded, only one was heading into the bay. I suspect that because the wind was quite strong from the west, they were just heading into wind. I have seen this with a wide range of species, where they are seemingly heading in the wrong direction. 

We had three Auk sp., 13 Eiders, eight Common Scoters and two Gannets, and that was it. It's looking a bit unsettled tomorrow, but Sunday is looking better, with an opportunity to have a look on the sea again.

Monday 18 March 2024

Avoiding A Soaking

Saturday morning, I headed to the coastal farm fields at Rossall, hoping for a bit of migration action, and there was some, not a huge amount, but it was migration. I headed out from my car under five oktas cloud cover, with a 10 - 15 mph south-easterly wind, and it was a tad cold. 

From the off, Meadow Pipits were heading north, and I had 63 in total. Other visible migrants included a Chaffinch, four Alba Wags, six Magpies, 12 Woodpigeons, six Jackdaws, 22 Pink-footed Geese, four Linnets, a Dunnock, a Goldfinch, three Skylarks, two Collared Doves, 5+ Siskins (stratospheric calling birds), and four Starlings. Not a bad selection of species 'on vis', even if the numbers were somewhat low. 
Meadow Pipit
The sea was quiet with 11 Eiders, two Cormorants, two Shelducks and a single Red-throated Diver still in winter plumage. The only grounded migrants that I had, other than about ten Meadow Pipits, were two males and a female Stonechat
As I walked along the track to the south, with adjacent mature hedge and rather full ditch, I heard a splashing sound behind me. I turned round expecting to see a Mallard, or Moorhen, but was confronted with a pale, long-winged bird, using its wings to pull itself through the water. Even though it was only a split-second, time seemed to stand still, and at first, I couldn't compute what the bird was, because it was completely out of context. It was a soggy Barn Owl
My rucksack, tripod, bins, camera, and coat were off in a jiffy, and I was going to enter the ditch to pull the Barn Owl out. However, I think because I came along, it gave it the impetus to try and move along the ditch, and just as I was about to slide into the water, it managed to grab hold of some low hanging Hawthorn branches and pull itself out. It climbed along the tangle of Hawthorn branches, struggling to make much headway, but then did a short flight to the other side of the bank, and out into the sunshine. I walked back along the track, and round the end of the hedge, but the Barn Owl had gone, so it had obviously managed to fly away. A good deed done, and on the plus side, I managed to avoid a soaking!
Why the Barn Owl was in the water I'm not entirely sure. Barn Owls sometimes drown in cattle drinking troughs, and it is thought that they are attacking their own reflection, thinking it is another Barn Owl in their territory. The ditch was covered in Duckweed, so this bird would not have been able to see its reflection, and after a chat with Will, he wondered whether it had gone after an amphibian, and I think he is probably right. A Frog could well have been moving through the Duckweed, and the choked, green surface of the water will have looked solid to the poor Barn Owl.
On my way home I called in at the Nature Park, to see if there were any Sand Martins and Wheatears, and there wasn't. Skylarks and Cetti's Warblers were singing, and on the pools were 22 Coots, three Little Grebes (two singing), 18 Tufted Ducks, a pair of Great Crested Grebes and a male Shoveler.  
Tufted Duck(s) above & below

Yesterday afternoon Gail and I had a walk along the Wyre estuary from the Quay. We had 6 oktas cloud cover, with a light south-easterly wind. It was very warm on our outward leg, but cooler on our return leg.

The tide was starting to run in, and 185 Redshanks were roosting on some of the higher sections of mud. We had 35 Oystercatchers flying upstream to their roost, and at their roost site on Arm Hill, we counted at least 400 roosting. There was still plenty of mud at Great Knott, but only 81 Oystercatchers on there. 

A Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on the wing, and that was it. We've got our last wintering bird survey to do tomorrow, and the forecast isn't great. We are going to do it tomorrow anyway, because the forecast for the remainder of the week, and into next week isn't any better. Fingers crossed they get it wrong!

Thursday 14 March 2024

Boxes Again

I suppose this wouldn't be a natural history blog, if I didn't complain about the weather from time to time, and just as sites were starting to dry out, it's raining again! There we go, complaint over...for now! 

Mondays are a bit tied up for Gail and I, because we look after our grandson Alex, but on the Monday just gone, the weather actually dried up in the afternoon, and even the sun attempted to make an appearance. We bundled him into his car seat, threw the pram in the boot, and headed up to Larkholme. The plan was to have a wander along the sea-front with Alex in his pram, stretch our legs at the same time. My bins and notebook are always with me, and I did wonder whether an early Wheatear might make an appearance. It didn't.
The tide was just turning, and the sea was flat calm, perfect conditions for a cetacean or two perhaps, but that wasn't to be either. I only had my bins with me, so I was very limited as to what I could see and identify without my scope. At least 24 Eiders were drifting slowly on the mill pond, and then I picked up a small duck (small in comparison to the Eiders) heading north. Luckily for me, as it headed north it was coming closer to shore, and I could see that it was a male Scaup. Not what I was expecting when we decided to take Alex for a walk!
A Grey Wagtail and a few Meadow Pipits were feeding in the wet grassland, and eight Turnstones were on the stone armour along the shore. 
It had been five days since we called at the Nature Park to check the water levels, and as it was quite sunny again on Tuesday afternoon, Gail and I decided to have a look on the pools to see if there were any early Sand Martins about. There wasn't. The water level in our ringing area had dropped, from five days ago, but it was still too flooded to get into the Willow scrub. 
Again, the tide was on the turn, and there have been some big tides over the last few days, in the region of 10.6 metres, and these completely cover the saltmarsh. Gail spotted a Skylark on the edge of the saltmarsh feeding on seeds from some of the saltmarsh plants, and I managed to get a few photographs of it. We were enjoying watching it, until a dog walker asked us what we were looking at, and his dog flushed it. When we told him we were looking at birds, he said his dog chased birds!  

 Skylark (above & below)

Anyway, there were at least two Skylarks singing, and a further five birds feeding on some short-cropped grass. We had a look through the Gulls on the pools, and counted 80 Herring Gulls, 14 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, four Great Black-backed Gulls and five Black-headed Gulls. No spring white wingers. 
Other counts from the pools included 25 Coot, the continually photographed pair of Great Crested Grebes that the 'Toggers' can't leave alone (how many full-framed shots of a Great Crest do you need?), 12 Mallards, five Tufted Ducks and five Little Grebes
Great Crested Grebe
At least two Cetti's Warblers were singing, and also on the passerine front we had a fly-over Rock Pipit (pushed off the saltmarsh), three Reed Buntings and a pair of Stonechats. On the river were seven Wigeon, and a group of Black-tailed Godwits and Knots were heading back downstream as the tide fell. 
Yesterday, Gail and I headed to our friend's farm where we have 30 nest boxes up for Tree Sparrows. They are not all used by Tree Sparrows of course, with the boxes closer to the yard being favoured by them. We checked all the boxes, and they were in fine fettle, and we only had to replace two. 
We had a look on the wetland, and we had c.200 Teal and a Little Egret. A Chiffchaff was singing from the woodland where we have some of our boxes, and a pair of Buzzards were displaying. 
It's looking wet again tomorrow, but there's a chance that it will be fit to get out Saturday morning. That's the issue at the moment, it just seems to be an hour here, or a couple of hours there, when it's fit enough to get out.

Saturday 9 March 2024

Birds, Bikers and Boxes

On the last day of February, this year a date that only comes around every four years, I had a solo outing along the Quay and Wyre estuary. It was a cold morning, with full cloud cover, and a brisk south-westerly wind, and an in-coming tide. 
The Redshanks were being pushed to the drier areas of the Quay, and totalled 251, which is quite a good count for the site. Oystercatchers had already cleared out, and all that were left, were just five birds. The tide had nearly covered Great Knott, and as a consequence, only about 200 birds were on here. Oycs could be seen flying upstream, and were heading to a roost site on the other side of the river. 
Just two Teal were in the Quay, and 62 Wigeon were in the channel, and other than a bedraggled looking female Peregrine, that was it.
When I first got to the Quay, I had to wait in my car for a heavy shower to pass over, and this is when Gail phoned me with some sad news. 
I don't do celebrity. I respect talented musicians, or academics, and I have my conservation heroes, like Ian Newton, and the late, great Derek Ratcliffe, but that's about it, apart from two guys who ride motorbikes, and cook food that looks like you would eat it, rather than some of the so-called celebrity chef's offerings. Stuffed pea, with a berry jus anyone?
Gail phoned me to say that Hairy Biker, Dave Myers, had sadly passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. We have been watching their latest series, The Hairy Bikers Go West, and although Dave did look poorly at times, we honestly thought that he was on the mend, so it came as a real shock.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Hairy Bikers a number of years ago now, when Gail and I went to see them at a sold-out performance at Blackpool's Winter Gardens. Gail is a real fan of the Hairy's, and we had managed to secure seats on the second row, on the edge of the central isle in the stalls. During the interval, I noticed an 'official' photographer knelt on the stage taking pictures of the audience, and the camera was pointing at yours truly more often than not.
I have a resemblance to Dave, and if I had £5 for every time I have been asked "are you Dave Myers", I could retire. We have been in remote places, like castle Eilean Donan, in Highland for example, having coffee and cake, and a member of staff has come up to me and asked if I was Dave from the Hairy Bikers!
When the Bikers came back on stage after the interval, Si King came to the front of the stage and said "we need a volunteer to help with this next bit, and that will be you sir", pointing at me at the same time. I climbed up on stage with Si exclaiming to Dave that I must be his long, lost brother, and Dave ran across the stage shouting "brother", and gave me an enormous hug. I spent the next ten minutes on stage with them, helping with a daft Houdini act, where Dave was in padlock and chains, and it was my job to check everything was secure. Of course, they were setting me up, because every time I said that a padlock and chain was secure, it would come undone. Gail thought it was hilarious, and after getting over my initial surprise, I did enjoy it. 
Dave was a lovely bloke, and he is gone far too soon. Rest in peace fella.
A couple of mentions of some garden wildlife over this past week or so. We now have Frog spawn in our pond, and up to press, there are over six Frogs every night in the pond, so hopefully we might get a little more. 
Frog spawn
We also had an avian terminator in the garden one afternoon, in the form of a male Sparrowhawk. I looked out of the window and thought the garden looked quiet, and there perched up in the apple tree was this little fellow below!
On the first day of the month, Gail and I visited our Pied Flycatcher nest box scheme in the Hodder Valley in Bowland. We have 43 boxes up, and we replaced two that were looking a bit tired, and put another two up, making 45 boxes in total now. 
Our 45th box on site
The sound-scape as we walked amongst the trees, was that of displaying Curlew from the fields at the top of the valley sides. In the bottom of the valley, a female Goosander flew upstream, and we also had two Jays, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, two Siskins, a singing Goldcrest and two Brown Hares
A few plants were starting to show, with flowers appearing on the Dog's Mercury and Lords-and-Ladies were more obvious on the still relatively bare woodland floor in places. Splashes of colour were provided by Scarlet Elfcup, and this colourful fungus was scattered throughout the woodland.  

Scarlet Elfcup

A few days ago, I had a meeting at my client's farm near Slaidburn, again in Bowland. I got there early, and had a drive round in my car to see what I could see. There is a good network of tracks on the farm, and you can drive round using your car as a mobile hide. 
Curlews and Lapwings had started to arrive back on the farm, and I had four and six of each, a lot more to arrive yet. Oystercatchers were in greater numbers, 26 were alongside the main pool in the central wetland complex. As was a Little Egret, which is regular now, and I must admit it still looks odd in this upland landscape. Two species of raptor, and an honorary raptor; two Buzzards, a Kestrel and a Raven. A male Stonechat, also made it into my notebook. Always a good species to see. 
Part of the main pool at my client's farm

The following day I was at my wintering bird survey site, south of the Ribble, for the penultimate visit. It was quite a crisp, clear morning with a sharp easterly breeze. I added a new species for the site, for the survey period, in the form of a Great White Egret, and had seven of their 'Little' cousins. 
Woodpigeon  numbers were still relatively high, with a total of 103, and a group of 18 Fieldfares had tagged onto a feeding flock of Starlings. A number of Starling flocks, 1,900 birds in total, were arriving from the northwest and heading south at first light, and I'm guessing that they were coming from the large roost under one of the piers at Blackpool.  
Fourteen Skylarks, included four singing individuals, and Shelducks had increased to ten. Tree Sparrow numbers had also increased, and I had nine, very vocal birds as I walked my transect. Linnets numbered 77, and other bits and pieces included a Sparrowhawk, two Kestrels, a male Stonechat and a Buzzard.  
Gail and I were back at the Quay a few days ago, and it was a gloriously sunny, but cold morning. Wader numbers were down as it was low tide, and we just had 30 Redshanks and nine Oystercatchers. We noticed that Common Whitlowgrass was flowering, and it won't be long before lots of other plants start flowering as well. 
Towards the end of the week, we paid at visit to the Nature Park to oil the padlocks on the gates that give us access to the site, check the water levels in our ringing area, and carry out some management work if possible. We managed to complete two out of the three tasks that we set ourselves. 
The padlocks were all oiled, and the last padlock on the gate into our ringing area needed a bit of persuading to unlock, but it is now well and truly oiled, and ready for the spring. The water levels were very high, as expected, and we couldn't even get our car to where we normally park, let alone walk into our net rides. We will keep checking on a weekly basis, until the water levels have dropped enough for us to get in, but it could take a few weeks. We tried to coppice a few Willows in a less flooded area, but the bow waves of walking through the water was spilling over the top of our wellies, so we just coppiced one large Willow and called it a day. 
Close to where we coppiced the large Willow we flushed five Snipe, and around the pools over the rest of the site we recorded four singing Cetti's Warblers, 24 Coots, five Little Grebes (two singing), 14 Tufted Ducks, 130 Herring Gulls, two Great Black-backed Gulls, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, a pair of Mute Swans, 19 Mallards, nine Black-headed Gulls, two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, six Canada Geese and ten Wigeon on the river.
Great Crested Grebe
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Little Grebe

A pair of Skylark were in suitable habitat, and a male Stonechat may or may not have been a migrant. A Raven over, and that was about it. 
It is looking a bit unsettled this coming week, but there are a couple of mornings that look okay, and the first Wheatears, Sand Martins and Sandwich Terns will be due this week. Something to look forward to. 

Over on the right you will see that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group up until the end of February. One new species for the year was ringed during the month, and this was a Redwing.

The top 4 ringed for the month, and the top 6 'movers and shakers' for the year can be found below.

Top 4 Ringed in February

1. Siskin - 33
2. Goldfinch - 18
3. Chaffinch - 13
    Blue Tit - 13

Top 6 Movers and Shakers

1. Siskin - 56 (same position)
2. Blue Tit - 35 (up from 3rd)
3. Goldfinch - 29 (down from 2nd)
4. Chaffinch - 24 (down from 3rd)
5. Tree Sparrow - 21 (straight in)
6. Great Tit - 15 (straight in)