Sunday, 16 December 2018

The great Great Grey Shrike dip

The Safari was picked up on a cold and frosty morning by CR and we hit the motorway, or at least we tried to being thwarted by in no particular order heavy traffic, slowcoaches and tractors going miles further than they really ought. A good 20 minutes later than we should have arrived CR pulled up in to the marsh car park at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve. We strolled eagerly down the trail full of expectations for the day. We'd not gone far when the first of the days Robins was seen sat on a frosty stem overhanging the path. Unfortunately it didn't stay on the stem but hopped onto the path in front of us - basically it was a mugger waiting for us to throw down some food for the beggar on a cold morning - which C did as he'd brought a bag of goodies for such an occasion and it was grateful for the handout.
Walking down to the hides we passed a couple more Robins but they weren't so full on. The hide was very cold and from the very condensation covered windows we saw that both the pool in front of us and the further one were almost birdless. In front of us only a couple of dozen Wigeon grazed the far bank and as far as we could see all the birds were right at the back of the other pool so we made a quick decision to hightail it down to the main reserve. There we expected the main pools to be mostly frozen so aimed for the Causeway first where we'd heard an Otter had been showing well.
On the way another mugger was lurking in the Ivy.

Robins might be common and confiding but don't ever take them for granted as they are beautiful little birds.
Reaching the Causeway Hide we'd not long sat down and noted a few Lapwings on the small island in front of us when someone called out 'Otter to the far right'. Miles too far away for the 300mm lens but superb views through the scope and then a second was in view a little to the left but even further away. for a while we had both in view through the scope although they totally ignored each other.
Best of the rest was a snoozing Greenshank on the island with the Lapwings.
We hadn't heard of any news of the recent Great Grey Shrike on any social media/bird news platform since the previous Thursday so guessed it had probably gone. however it was sometimes reported as being 'elusive' so we thought it best to have a look for it anyway - just in case.
Wandering down the track to Lower Hide we passed yet more mugging Robins, the regular mugging female Pheasant and this wary male Blackbird who was content for you to throw some seed about rather than dive in to your pockets for it.
Half way along tthe track we came across a flock of Siskins right up in the top of a group of tall Alder trees. They spent all their time in the uppermost twigs and mostly on the far and shady side of the treetops. We hoped they come to our, the sunny, side of the trees but they never did. While waiting for them not to come our way we did spy a Treecreeper working its way up one of the Alder trees and this Coal Tit.
Keeping a careful eye on the field margin hedges as we went eventually arrived at Lower Hide. It was quite busy in there - we can remember the days when hardly a soul ventured that far and you could have the hide all to yourself for most of the day. Anyway one of the birders already there pointed two pairs of Snipe one to the left and one to the right. The right hand birds were in good light but more obscured by intervening vegetation. After a while other birds left and we could reposition ourselves for a clearer view of them.
 Thee warm sun soon had them beginning to stir and move around as it thawed the muddy margins of the pool and eventually four became seven as initially unseen ones rose from their places of concealment.
A couple of Little Egrets flew past, four female Goldeneyes dived in the un-frozen water in the centre of the pool and we misidentified a Marsh Harrier as a Bittern when it rose from the middle of the far reedbed...ops!!!! Mistake rectified when it banked and showed its true colours before landing on the reed edge just like a Bittern might do!
Once we'd had our fill of shuffling Snipe we resumed our quest for the invisible Great Grey Shrike. At the path junction a couple of birders had put out a bit of food on the fence top and attracted a lot of interest from the birds, just about hardest to get a pic of were the very fast in and out Marsh Tits, they really didn't hang around for more than a millisecond. We gave it a good ten minutes to get these pics and enjoy the other species coming and going best of which was another Treecreeper that flicked about on the branches just beyond the food but as expected didn't join the fray.
In and out and then they were gone - by far the 'best' flight shot we got (= fluked)
Turning left to continue our shrike quest we kept scanning the hedgerows and scrub to no avail. This part of the reserve is much less walked by birders and it was noticeable a) how many fewer Robins there were and b) most of the footprints on the track weren't human boot prints but deer slots from the local Red Deer Deer herd.
There was an almost total lack of birds in the field hedges apart from the odd Woodpigeon or two, there was a farmer spraying some particularly pungent slurry in  one of the fields so anything with a sense of smell was going to be long gone! Once we'd retraced our steps back to the Causeway it was evident that the shrike wasn't about and probably hadn't been for some days.
This time we didn't stop at the Causeway Hide, it was pretty full in there, but continued to Lillian's Hide where a small group of Teal feeding on seeds caught in the thin film of meltwater sitting on the ice at the edge of the pool. Having a successful time of it too by the look of the bloated crops on some of them.
Teal are a really resplendent duck especially in late afternoon light
Suddenly they all flushed, we looked round to see this Cormorant coming in to land, we had hoped it was something a little more exciting as we'd seen a couple of Marsh Harriers quartering the reeds on the far side of the reserve.
When they flushed again several minutes later it couldn't have been the Cormorant as that was fishing in the middle of the pool in front of us well away from the ducks. It was indeed one of the Marsh Harriers that had done a circuit of the pool but unfortunately didn't get any closer than this, right on the edge of the range of the 300mm. Absolutely corking views in the bins though.
On the ice below us a movement caught our eye, a Pied Wagtail had dropped in unseen while we were concentrating on the Marsh Harrier.
It certainly lacked the grace and poise of a seasoned ice skater as it slipped and slithered across the slippery surface.
It was then that long time chum SB came in to the hide on his rounds and told us that the Great Grey Shrike had been seen earlier in the morning, not long before we headed out that way by the sound of it but he went on to say it didn't stick around long. maybe it goes somewhere with far fewer people around to record and report it on the Warton Crag opposite the reserve. We suppose that'll have to go down as a dip then!
With that disappointing news, although you can't say we'd had a disappointing day by a long chalk, CR suggested abandoning ship and heading back via Over Wyre to see if we could find an owl or two. We stopped by two of the farmland feeding stations to see a couple of male Pheasants, several Tree Sparrows, three Dunnocks, Robin and a Chaffinch at the first and nothing at all at the second.
Not an owl in sight so far but when we parked up at a hotspot we saw a Barn Owl hunting the field behind a distant hedge as soon as hot out of the car. By the time we walked down the lane to the path that crosses the fields it had gone and the light was going fast too.
Being crepuscular creatures we stuck it out and waited a while. The wind was getting up and gee was it icy, whipping across the low lying fields it felt as though it was trying to amputate our thumbs poking out of their fingerless gloves. But stick it out we did and were rewarded with several more views of the Barn Owl. This time it wasn't hunting just behind the hedge - the same hedge we were secreted in but right away across the far side of the field - how annoying - way too far in the failing light for the 300mm. And it always seemed to be flying away from us, that's the way the wind was coming from so it makes sense it would be flying in to it to get as slow a speed as possible for listening for voles in the grass. A couple of times it landed in the grass and once sat on the top of a lonely hedgerow 'tree' - most of the hedgerows round here are butchered to withing an inch of their lives each autumn/winter. 
The second time it landed a Carrion Crow came up to it and it took off wit ha vole and disappeared in to the nearby barn and that was our cue to leave and warm up in the car. By eck it was cold out there!
By far the best shot we got - still great to see even if our pics were rubbish
Another great day out on safari and big thanks to CR for the driving today.

Where to next? Got a safari up to the edge of the hills coming up next week.

In the meantime let us know who's looking resplendent in our outback

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