Friday 22 December 2023

Another double stop on the Southside

The Safari picked up CR and headed off over the Ribble to rendezvous with IH again. We had a couple of targets in mind both at different sites to those we visited last time out. Our first stop was the huge Crosby Marine Lake immediately north of Liverpool docks, IH was otherwise engaged for this venue but had already seen our quarry the previous day during his monthy WeBS count he does there.

So what had drawn us over the river again? Towards the end of the previous week news filtered through that a juvenile Black Throated Diver had taken up residence on the lake, seeing how it had hung around a few days already and the weather forecast was poor and not condusive to it going anywhere soon we decided to take a punt and go and see it. It's not a species we see often the last one being a few years ago and not one we see often they're usually a distant dot in the telescope. However, photos of this one on t'interweb suggested it showed really well, not just well but really really point blank well at times - too good an opportunity to miss. We parked up and walked into the marine park and immediately spotted several birders looking at something so we wandered over to join them
. Oh no not again - "You should have got here five minutes ago, it was just down here" said a lady pointing to the water by the toes of her boots. "Now it's over there" She pointed in the general direction of Dublin! Yes there it was away on the far side of the lake, although it could have been worse it could have been in the far right corner not just directly oppositie where we were stood. 

It was a miserable grey, dingy, dirty December day, the sort that dcoesn't really get light so mega distance photography was always gping to be more than tricky. Still it would be a new one for our Internatioanl Photo Challenge so we gave it our best shot (that should probably be our best 200 shots and hope one was in focus and identifiable at the same time) Not sure this one counts but it was the best of a (very) bad lot.

But the bird did us a big favour and continued to swim to the left although it was hard to follow spending much nore time underwater than at the surface. The good news was that leftwards was also nearer!
Much more identifiable now even if a Great Crested Grebe and then a Cormorant made for identification issues through the view finder.
After a while we spotted a birder binning it at close range from the path the dog walkers were using, nothing else for it but try to get round there. We worked on this site when it was under condtruction during our brief career as a tarmacer way back in the very early 80s but at that time the huge cafe building didn't exist so we weren't sure if the way round but another birder told us to follow him and off the three of us went. By now the diver had swum further to its left and we intercepted each other as we rounded the last of the little woodland that's grown up in the intervening years. (It might havev been planted - we've no idea, but it certainly wasn't there in the early 80s). The light was still grotty but at least the bird was close enough to see some details so we spent some time with it.

Great views of a Black Throated Diver, the best we've ever had and #179 for our challenge. 
Time was moving on and so did we, off to Martin Mere WWT we headed, passing an immature Stonechat on the grass verge by the scratty woodland and car park which hopped off its dead Dock stem a nanosecond before we pressed the shutter button. Hastening back to the car as the weather was closing in and looking ominous a Mistle Thrush flew out of seemingly nowhere and landed on a lamp post right abover our heads. Sadly not a species we see at all regularly these days.
The drive to Martin Mere was a dark wet one, at lunchtime too, which didn't bode well for the afternoon's viewing. Once we arrived the rain eased from heavy to not so heavy and we settled into the empty Discovery Hide to eat our butties and await the arrival of IH. After no more than two bites of cheese n tomato we spied the afternoon's target species, the Red Breasted Goose. It was sat not too far away with a multidude of other waterfowl on a little island a little to our left.
Nice one, #180 for our Challenge, and even better easy to point out to IH when he arrived, although it wasn't - it wasn't there! A quick panicky scan found it swimming towards the bank a bit further to our left - panic over.
It'd deffo a bonny bird and we've seen far fewer of these than we have Black Throated Divers but where has it come from? The powers that be have it down as "of unknown provenance". It first appeared in a large flock of Pink Footed Geese on the outer marsher of the estuary which is possibly a good sign as a Russian White Fronted Goose hailing from the same part of Siberia appeared not too far to the north a few days later. However, there are feral populations on the near continent just to confuse things and there must be some free flying birds in collections both in Britain and on the continent. Our brother, also in the Challenge, photographs one under a bridge in Geneva and that's deffo a feral bird. Still its fully winged and unringed (banded for those readers on the other side of the Atlantic). It has a decided limp too, pricked by gunshot on its migration??? Sincerely hope not as these are quite scarce birds and classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
Once on the bank it came towards us to avail itself of the free food lashed out by the wardens to encourage the birds close to the hide for the punters to enjoy....and we did!
After it had eaten its fill it took off back to the little island for a snooze. We took the opportunity of a break in the worst of the rain to move on to the Feeding Station to have a look at the small birds there, one of which might be a Willow Tit (fingers, toes, buttocks crossed) although reports so far this winter have been few and far between.
Once in the hide the rain came down heavy again - good of it to wait until we were under cover! The light was atrocious as you'll see. There was a little bit of a shock when we saw the feeders had been upgraded and the opportunities for the ever-entertaining Rats had been removed with the new feeders hanging out over the water so no chancce of spilled seeds for them. The usual selection of woodland/garden birds were lively though. All the usual suspects were there, Blue Tits, Great Tits, infrequent visits from a Coal Tit which got our excitment levels up a bit until we saw the diagnostic white nape, Robins, Dunnocks, Goldfinches, a few Greenfinches, lots of Chaffinches (we said it was a shame none of them could morph into a Brambling - then guess what turned up not 48 hours later - dohhh - - so near yet so far) and a pair of Reed Buntings.
A Treecreeper appeared but wouldn't show itself for a pic although to be fair it was at the back of the pool so any pic wouldn't have been much more than a few gloomy pixels. The Great Spotted Woodpecker was nearer but that managed to keep itself well obsured by twiggery. A Sparrowhawk sped through at break-neck speed and scattered the diners but not for long the feeders were soon back to lively.
A couple of Grey Squirrels were much better at keeping the birds off the feeders, when they were feeding the birds hung around the fringing bushes not wanting to come near.
It's good to see the feeders are metal and hopefully fairly squirrel-proof but our next visit will tell all and we expect the squirrels to have found a weak point and got in through the palasytic tube somewhere - we'll see. It's also not good to see Grey Squirrels at a feeder in this vicinity as there are Red Squirrels not too far away and some of those tiny populations have recently been devasted by Squirrel Pox which the Greys carry and are immune to but is sadly lethal to the Reds. Maybe the Rangers should get some 'control' measures going - maybe they do 'after hours'.
On the pool there's always a Moorhen and if there's a Moorhen we'll always take its picture - not that we're addicted to them or anything.
Nice with the droplets of drizzle on its back. And then it climbed up a fallen log, even more photogenic!
They Turkey Tail-type Bracket Fungus was nice too.
But what about the Rats? Yes, they are still there and if anything even more fun than before.
Why more fun than before? Well they now swim a bit too
And why do they swim? Well they swim out to under the feeders then dive like furry scuba-divers to bring the spilled seeds up to eat, absolutely brilliant to watch.
We now had an hour or so left before it got properly dark so mooched on round to the otehr side of the reserve in the hope of seeing the Barn Owl now the rain had eased a bit. A Barn Owl would be good, as would one of the fairly regular Stoats or even the Bittern that's been seen from here a couple of times. We're not fussed we'll look at and enjoy owt what turns up.
Settling into our seat we looked over into the big bull's field in case any Cattle Egrets were strutting around him - alas not today, but there was a lot of Blue Tit activity by the gate close by. We soon realised that the Rangers had put some seed in the hole at the top of the rotting gate post - it was non-stop in and out of there and before long a pair of Great Tits had joined the party.
IH spotted a distant Marsh Harrier in the air, a good sign now the rain had stopped. Before many minutes had passed another three were in the air with it, great to watch. IH also had a Peregrine and then a Kestrel appeared, the end of the rain certainly brought the raptors out in force. A Carrion Crow jostled with a Sparrowhawk close to the hide but there was still no sign of the hoped for Barn Owl.
Down the ditch in front of us there was a Little Egret and a Heron. For some reason we under the illusion this ditch to be deep enough to swallow your average Blue Whale but today the Heron was stood in the middle of it only up to its knees - illusion duly shattered!
A second Little Egret flew in and began stalking the edge of the ditch in front of us. It did the shaky leg shimmy thing to stir out any small fish from the margins without success.
After a while it climbed out on to the bank and showed us its snazzy yellow feet
Darkness was coming down quickly now and we had to leave before the Barn Owl put in an appearance, well there's always next time. Despite the weather it was still a grand day out on safari.
All that remains is to wish you all wherever you are a Merry Christmas (or better still Solstice) and a very happy wildlife-filled New Year.

Where to next? We might get a chance of a short safari over the holidays but we'll certainly be back in business in the new year.
In the meantime let us knwo who's got the snazziest feet in your outback.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Southwards for a change

The Safari picked up CR and headed south across the river to meet IH at our boyhood birding haunts.on arrival we immediately saw why IH had told us not to look for the previously regular(ish) Little Owl, its favourite tumbledown house had been demolished prior to redevelopment. It was a bright, crisp winter's day and on Lunt Meadows itself the first pool was totally frozen over and also totally lacking in life. Needless to say we didn't stay more than a couple of minutes before heading round the rest of the reserve in a clockwise direction. A birder we met at the gate told us he'd seen both a Hen Harrier and a Marsh Harrier earlier in the morning so to keep our eyes peeled. While waiting for us to arrive IH had already seen a Buzzard too, we can remember when Buzzards were almost unheard of in these parts and should one turn up it would have been top of the local gamehkeepers' hit lists. Thankfully things have changed for the better; for Buzzards at least, not so much the Hen Harriers which still suffer horrendous illegal persecution.

The first field held its usual large gaggle of feral Grey Lag and Canada Geese. There were probably more of the latter than we saw in Canada last year, although to be fair we didn't see that many. Beyond the geese the edge of the frozen pool saw a few Lapwings and Coots roosting up conserving energy in the cold conditions. A Reed Bunting flew over and a  Blackbird skulked about the boundary hedge but much more bizarre was the Ring Necked Parakeet that flew over us. We had no idea they were anywhere near hereand as non-native species go we'd much sooner have the Little Owl than these pesky parrots.

We anbled slowly on towards the next pool where a small group of birders were stood, hopefully with the 'main event' in view. The main event being an American Green Winged Teal which has been on site for at least as long as its moulted into its plumage with the vertical white shoulder stripe enough to separate it from the hundreds of our own green winged Teals. Fortunately the birders already had a scope set up on it although it wasn't showing particularly well. Can you see it?
We had the brainwave of noticing there was a bit of a gap between the Wigeon that were obsuring it and the Teal to the right so moved down the track ten yards or so to see if that made a better  viewing angle, it did, quite a bit better. The cold breeze was making us shake around rather a lot when taking pics but here there was a stout fence post without vegetation around it to lean on.
Other ducks on the pool included Mallards, some Shelducks, a few Shoveler and a handful of Gadwall with a few Coots and a couple of Moorhens thrown in for good measure. A Redshank flew in calling, possibly hoping for some soft ground to probe for worms in but it would be out of luck the ground along the track was rock hard beneath our boots. Wandering on we wondered where all the Cetti's Warblers were, usually they are the noisiest bird on the site but today there were silent. At the next pool there was some open water but most of the ducks were hauled out on the ice asleep.
Scans of the horizon, much more distant from here as the viewing point is elevated a few feet above the track, gave us no sign of any raptors even tyhough the sun was now beginning to get some warmth to it and the morning chill was going out of the air. We moved swiftly on heading to the river. The hedge beside the path was lively with small birds, indeed it was easily the liviest part of the reserve. There were Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Robins, a Wren, Reed Buntings a female of which stayed still long enough for us to point the lens at.
And right at the end of the hedge two Dunnocks sat up in the top of a Hawthorn bush, not often you see two of these skulky little devils sat out in an exposed position at the same time!
The river gave us paddling Mallards and some Lapwings in the fields beyond. Two distant Buzzards were found and a distant Heron along with a flock of small birds, Linnets or Skylarks or something else??? They were a very  long way off. We kept an eye on the reedbeds stretching below us on our side of the river just in case a Bittern should pop up - no such luck! It's amazing to think that this area is only a mile or so from our boyhood home ands we used to traipse the fields of spuds, carrots and cabbages that used to be here on our bike with a pair of almost un-see-through bins seeing nothing but Lapwings, Skylarks, Grey Partridges and occassionally in winter a skein of Pink Footed Geese - how times have changed...Bitterns a mile from our front door - who'd have believed it. The Grey Partridges are still here but sadly not much more numerous than the Bitterns now and we didn't see any today.

Having completed the circuit of the reserve it was getting near butty time and IH suggested quick nip to the coast rather than eat our scran at the car with little or nothing to look at. But rather than going to hall Road coastguards he suggested driving up to Hightown to start the coastal walk from the north end - good plan! It must be 50 years since we last crossed the railway into Hightown village and we'd never have found the parking spot access to the dunes without following IH. There we grabbed our butties and headed out to the river mouth passing through a little fence IH told us he'd helped build as a coastal volunteer about 40 years ago...all creditr to him, it still looks pretty sturdy!

A short walk brought us to the river mouth where we sat on the frozen dunes and admired the view out across the wider Mersey bay over a mirror calm sea while tucking into all manner of pies and sandwiches. Over on the sandbanks there was a huge number of waders roosting up over the high tide, Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Curlews, Redshanks and a couple of Little Egrets, a throng of Great Black Backed Gulls lined the far bank of the Alt and further out a line of Cormorants stood on the outer edge of the sanbank. More of their number roosted on the channel marker nearby while below them a large number of  Shelducks pottered about in the shallows and river channel. Scanning further out we couldn't find any Harbour Porpoises even though conditions were perfect for spotting any that might have been there.

Butties mucnhed we set off southwards along the shore line, the low afternoon sun made looking that way uncomfortable at times but at least it was warm now and we soon felt overdressed in our full winter togs.

The ebbing tide was revealing fresh mud and soon more flocks of Knot along wit ha large flock of Black Tailed Godwits flew in to take advantage of the freshly uncovered feeding areas. Walking south towards Crosby and past the WW2 bomb rubble on the beach we hoped to find some more waders although the tide seemed to be taking a long time to drop and leave a particularly favoured spot uncovered, one we've been watching since the early 70s. It's quite weird thinking back and realising there was a lot less time between the end of WW2 with that rubble being dumped there and us starting birding the area than there is between those early birding adventures and now. How time flies.

We did come across a couple of Turnstones feeding quite high up the beach.

And then saw a Grey Plover fly in showing its black axcillaries very nicely as it fluttered to a halt on the rocks (=bricks etc) on the water's edge. Trouble is we had to cautiosly get a dozen or more yards past it to look back on it with the sun behind us. Luckily our snaeking around skills didn't let us down and it stayed put allowing a few snaps.

The area has always been good for Stonechats and today was no exception. Not sure how many we saw today as they can be quite mobile but we'd hazard a guess at at aleast half a dozen. They seem to be particularly good at two things today - keeping just out of range and/or staying on the wrong side of the light. Eventually we caught up with a trio that nearly behaved for us. We only managed a pic of a young one, the snazzy male leaving his perch on a tangle of heavy duty wire a millisecond before we pressed the shutter button.
By now it was time to head back to the car before it got too dark for pics. It was a bit of hasty retreat but there wasn't too much to see along the way. We took a shorter,easier walking route back which passed by the Natterjack Toad breeding ponds - no chance of these warm weather creatures being out today, their ponds were frozen solid...a spring evening visit is on the cards to here these 'Lancashire Nightingales' singing. The low sun illuminated the seed heads of the Reeds beautifully though.
The shortly before reaching IH's ancient fence we spied a flash of white moving in a Sea Buckthorn thicket, a couple of Fieldfares were using their wings to balance their eway through the prickly mass to get to the choicest berries. A Blackbird was in there too and managed to flush on of the Fieldfares low and to the back tof the bush. Fortunately the other one stayed on the front of the bush but unfortunately in the heavily shaded part rather than the brightly lit patch a yard to the left - how annoying!
A few minutes later we were back at the cars saying farewell until next time to IH and heading back to Base Camp after a lovely day out on safari in our old haunts.
Where to next? Could be anywhere.
In the meantime let us know who's eating berries in the dark in your outback - and don't say Waxwings - - sore point!