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

Thursday, 13 December 2018

A one day road trip

The Safari picked up CR last Monday and off we went down the motorway towards Bolton. Many years ago we used to do a bit of work out that way at Anglezarke reservoir and up towards Rivington Pike but we'd never heard of the little reservoir just a couple of miles beyond, High Rid. Our reason for going out that way was to twitch the Velvet Scoter that had been hanging round on the res for the past couple of weeks. With news that it was still there on Sunday come Monday morning we felt we just had to have a trip out.
The weather wasn't great with low cloud and a lot of drizzle but on arrival at the reservoir it didn't take long to find the bird - it was only 10 yards out from the bank right in the nearest corner.
Our 194th species for the year and number 177 on our Photo Year List Challenge - not many days left now and the front runners are around 100 species ahead so we'll never catch up but it's all about the taking part and challenging yourself to get better/different/more interesting photos not just the 'winning'...Honest!
Our quarry was feeding in the margins and sailed past us working it's way towards the far end of the res so we tucked ourselves below the crest of the embankment and and tried to get ahead of it. Our plan nearly worked but the bird had other ideas and flew off to the furthest corner, nothing for it but to walk round that way taking in the drizzle and scenery. Also on the lake was a flotilla of Tufted Ducks a few Mallards (aren't there always) and a handful of Goldeneyes. Small numbers of Black Headed and Common Gulls drifted in and out and we picked up a Little Grebe too.
We'd just reached the nearest corner of the res when the scoter decided it was going to fly down to the other end again....dohhh but the exercise is good for you! We retraced our steps and caught up with it as it fished close in along the edge at the top end close to where we'd first seen it. This time we were able to get closer pics by peeking our head over the embankment so as not to flush it seeing as it was so close. If only the 600mm lens wasn't in dock but it was still close enough for the 300mm, shame the light wasn't a bit better.
A good bird to see close up, normally we only see them miles out to sea as a dot in the telescope and even then not that frequently. We also saw it do its little shimmy lift out of the water without stretching its wings as is diagnostic with this species; our much more frequently seen species, Common Scoters stretch their wings out when they do the shimmy thing. We hoped we'd get a pic of it but it only did it once all the time we were there.
Our tummies were now telling us lunchtime was rapidly approaching so it was back to the car for the second leg of the day's safari over to Lunt Meadows just north of Liverpool.
45 minutes later we were chomping our butties in the reserve car park having passed two Jays on the way - a species we still haven't been able to submit to the SD card for the Challenge.
Here we hoped to see a Short Eared Owl or two and possibly some Grey Partridges as on our last visit here without a camera we'd seen several large coveys, the most we've seen in one day for a great many years. However it was the large number of Lapwings constantly taking to the air that caught our attention first. They were up and down all afternoon but we never did get to see what was spooking them - probably nothing!
No sign of any Grey Partridges in the fields as we approached the first pool, where we'd seen most of them last time but a pair of very active Little Egrets caught our eye. There was some argy-bargy going on with one chasing the other hither and thither around the pool. Eventually the action drew close to the screen we were approaching and from there after a cautious approach they gave good views. One, presumably female, just wanted to get on with the job of catching some fish but the other, presumably male was chasing her around something rotten and wouldn't let her settle. We think he was wanting to get amorous but she was having none of it.
Come back and stand still for a minute why don't you
If I have to fly after you one more time!!!
She was still trying to resist his advances over an hour later after we'd moved to the next screen and chatted to a trio of birders who told us a Short Eared Owl had been seen on the far side of the river earlier in the day. With not too much space and not a lot going on at the screen we decided to walk up to then along the river. A good move as it happened. About half way along the embankment heading south a Short Eared Owl picked up form the side of the embankment not far in front of us. Whether it was going to anyway or whether it saw/heard us coming we're not sure but it flew away from us a few yards and then settled on a post. we took a few pics of it in the distance and then edged 10 yards closer took some more pics and had a good bins look before edging another 10 yards closer and repeating the performance. Our next attempt at edging 10 yards closer didn't work, we must have reached its zone of tolerance and it flew off crossing the river, doubling back behind us and dropping down behind the embankment on the far side of the river and out of sight.
Job done though, PYLC number 178.
But we hoped if we hung around another hour or more we'd get closer views as it/they came out to hunt nearer dusk.
In the meantime we waited around the pumphouse area ready to shoot off either north or south along the river embankment should any owls reappear. The supporting cast was good with a lot of Black Tailed Godwits on the Pumphouse Pool with a developing gull roost, about 100 Pink Footed Geese were in a cropped field on the far side of the river, the Lapwings were up and down like  yo-yos and a Cetti's Warbler sang briefly. Not so welcome was the American Mink that swam past us.
Then we spotted in the distance the Short Eared Owl as up and hunting again, back where we first saw it so of we went. It was quartering back and forth along the side of the embankment so we reckoned if we got to a spot just in front of where it was coming too and waited we'd be quids in. And as luck would have it the plan worked.
Again we could have done with a bit better light, an ominously dark black, thick black cloud had settled right in front of the setting sun, and the 600mm. Once again the owl did as it had done before and scarpered across the river not to be seen again. 
We waited and waited for it to come out to no avail but then there was a call of Barn Owl from another birder. It was miles away at the far end of the reserve but in time came closer passing in from the the mew and still under construction hide...don't think it's going to be big enough to fit all the potential owl photographers in.
The Barn Owl did come within range...just - and it as getting darker by the minute.
Great stuff! Always a pleasure to see Barny.
In other news we've had a couple of visits to Marton Mere this week. Somehow we've managed to miss the Otter which has been seen every day. 
A panic by the gulls alerted us to something interesting but we were unsighted under the big tree you're probably not supposed to be under but which could use a bit of screen making out of the living Willows on the water's edge. A Bittern emerged from behind the twigs and branches and flew high above the gulls. We probably got a bit excited and didn't let the camera do its thing but it was a fair way off for the 300 and that has focused on the trees beyond - darned thing!
And it was only seconds before it was hidden behind the trunks of the trees we were hiding under.
Unfortunately we couldn't find anything unusual in the gull flock. The Bittern and then a very loud jet flying just above the low cloud frightened all the duck out in to the open, there were at least 500 Teal, no Green Winged Teal as far as we could tell, and 170 odd Wigeon, a good count for here.
Earlier we'd noticed a big flock of Fieldfares numbering at least 30 flying over Lawson's Field before turning back towards the reserve. We re-found them 'round the back' where we hoped to spot a Long Eared Owl secreted in a former 'usual' place - no such luck this season.
Typical twig ridden view
A better but all to infrequent view - crackers aren't they
A few yards further on this nice Bracket Fungus caught our eye. The Fylde coast is pretty lacking in fungi, there's precious little mature woodland and the prevailing westerlies along the coast prevent spores from inland reaching us and colonising. But there's always an exception and this lovely purple job is one of them - no idea which species it is but it's very gaudy in a subtle sort of way for a Fylde coast.
The Feeding Station has been quite busy, mostly with a sackful of female Pheasants - refugees from - the shooting woods a mile or so away they always seem to find the free food!
On a more serious note it's high time there were some restrictions on the number of Pheasants that gett released, over 40 million of them annually with a total weight of far more than the weight of all the native breeding birds combined and all without some much as a by your leave. And yet there's so many hoops to jump through to re-release a former native that in most circumstances became extinct due to the same huntin shootin fishin types - we're thinking about the recent proposal to bring White Tailed Eagles back to the south coast on the Isle of Wight - bring em on we say, would we go for a look at them in a lowland setting you betcha!!! 
On our second visit there was little food left in the feeders so we snuck in - naughty - and moved the only feeder with some nuts left in it to a branch closer to the windows.
You'd travel a long way to see a Blue Tit if they were rare - little stunners, never take them for granted
Back at the car a speckly looking Carrion Crow was working the verge across the road.
An afternoon wander round Stanley Park with our group of young children in a very chilly and blustery wind gave us this flock of Pink Footed Geese flying over us as we set off.
A chilly afternoon wasn't conducive to seeing a lot of birds but the kids did enjoy seeing the Ring Necked Parakeet popping in and out of its nesting hole - not that it's nesting at this time of year just doing a bit of house keeping. 
In other news the local Bluebells are showing well in the Rock Gardens - WHY??? It's still only early December to crying out loud.
And turning round we saw these red berries, we think they're a plant we'd never heard of until the other day when we were shown a pic of one from Stanley Park, Stinking Iris.
A bit of research suggests they are a native species of damp undergrowth - that figures, so our thought that they might have been planted in the early days of the parks is probably way off the mark. The way to tell is to crush the leaves and sniff then for a hint of roast beef - it doesn't stink at all, another of those wildlife misnomers! And now we have to check we haven't been told about it before at Marton Mere and had forgotten about it.
Where to next? Another safari with CR tomorrow up north.

In the meantime let us know who's 

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Dingy December days give typical winter fare

The Safari and Monty have mostly been getting wet this week, for the last two days its been perpetual dusk. Earlier in the week a frosty start gave the opportunity for a dry - well at least not rainy - wander round Marton Mere, it wasn't that dry underfoot...think big puddles and quagmires.
The early morning frost was melting and the limp sun was lifting a cold mist over the wetlands as we walked in. To further brighten the morning a Cetti's Warbler sang briefly but otherwise all was quiet. Certainly no sign of the Roe Deer that was spotted very early morning a few days previously. Our prize of a king-size Mars Bar to the first person the get a pic of a deer on the reserve is still up for grabs...
To give Monty more of a run we chose to walk round the perimeter of the reserve where we heard but couldn't see a couple of Goldcrests in the dense Blackthorn boundary hedge. We had a look for any Long Eared Owls from the few places it's now possible to see over the hedge but yet again all the previously favoured spots were uninhabited. Where are they? Are there any about? News of a roosting Tawny Owl nearby a few days ago may not be good news for any Long Eared Owls as there's a bit of intra-guild competition between the two species and sometimes aggression too from the larger and much more powerful Tawny Owls. Maybe any LEOs that have been around have been scared off/eaten??? 
Nothing of note was noted along the embankment and the few remaining trees in that corner of the caravan site were devoid of birds. We parked up in the Fylde bird Club hide and enjoyed a bit of sunshine illuminating a nice variety of water birds, about 50 Teal, there was a Green Winged Teal at this time of year back in '94 and we checked the 'normal' Teal just in case...none - unless there's an unidentifiable female in the flock! Mallards, Shoveler, Gadwall, a dozen or more Wigeon, the flock of Grey Lag Geese with a (the?) neck collared bird that was too distant to read and to get a pic of with the 300mm - our 600mm is in dock for auto-focus issues to be sorted, hope it's not going to be too expensive to sort out, a a real life lesson in filling out those 5 year warranty cards/web pages!!!
The Coot had yet another mass panic but we couldn't see what had caused it. News was that one had been taken by the Otter a day or so ago so they have good reason to scatter. Otters are fairly catholic in their diet but the do prefer fish so if ours is eating Coots does that mean there's not many fish of a suitable size or just a super-abundance of pretty clumsy and easy to catch Coots available?
The Coot panic made a good flock of gulls lift off the water to our left but they settled back down in the same place out of sight from our vantage point in the hide so e left to check them over from 'under the trees'. The now fallen Typha here allows good views over the western end of the mere and the all important gull flock although today we didn't find anything other than Herring Gulls and a couple of Black Headed Gulls in the flock.
Another Cetti's Warbler sang from close to the Dragonfly Den hide and the recently cut swathes through the reedbed played host to a few Coots, a couple of Moorhens and a Heron.
There wasn't anything to point the lens at until we came across this Robin sitting at the side of the track.
we got a snap off and then it dived down to the path to collect a tiny morsel it had somehow seen and then returned to a perch close to the one it left but just a little further away from us. But as we inched closer trying to get closer than before for the 300mm to bed more effective a dog walker appeared from found the other side of the bush and the Robin was gone.
The Feeding Station was well provisioned but there was little activity apart from the ubiquitous aliens, Pheasants and Grey Squirrels, so we chose not to stay long.
It's not often you come across a solitary Goldfinch but this one feeding on the soggy heads of a Spear Thistle was just that, there were no others to be seen or heard in the immediate vicinity. Where were its chums?
Again we tried to inch closer to get a better range for the 300mm but this time we spooked it and off it went. We imagined that once it took flight others would join it from their hiding places but none did.
Just outside the reserve the morning's frost and mist had created artistic droplets all over the vegetation  -we couldn't resist snapping away at some of the Rose Hips at one of the path junctions.
As our walk neared its end there's a few Apple trees with a good number of windfall apples still lying on the ground. We could see some Blackbird activity in and under the trees so approached cautiously.
There were several, probably at least double figures lurking in the undergrowth but were quite aggressive towards each other with lots of chasing rivals off to get to the best fruit so it was quite tricky to keep tabs on them all. We did however see the pale rump of a Fieldfare lift up through the twiggery and heard the unmistakable 'whacka chacka' call as it did so. It then took some careful repositioning to be able to see it anything like well up in the top of the tree, this was easily our best view.

It shifted position and we lost sight of it somewhere round the back of the tree and lower down but thought we'd refound it again when we saw a 'paler than a Blackbird' movement at the foot of the tree. Not the Fieldfare but a Song Thrush this time.
By now a cluster of dog walkers was closing down on us and their mutts were running amok here there and everywhere through the vegetation - needless to say that was the end of any chance of seeing the Fieldfare again as most of the birds took flight and went over behind us back the way we'd come from towards the reserve. 
We did see LR's favourite gull though, a Black Headed Gull that has been pacing up and down the track for a good few winters now - wonder where it hangs out during the summer, a local nesting colony on the Lancashire coastal marshes or much much further away???

November ended with 192 bird species on our year list of which we'd got pics of 176 for our Photo Year List Challenge - a rather unexpectedly high 'strike-rate' of  91.6666666666666666% and we still haven't been able to submit such local species as Jay, Yellowhammer or Corn Bunting to the SD card.

Where to next? Blimey anywhere will do as soon as this dreek rainy weather gives over.

in the meantime let us know who's got the track side eagle eyes in your outback.