Sunday, 18 March 2018

Barnie's At Mersehead

I've just come back from a very pleasant couple of days in Dumfries and Galloway. I was attending the Scottish Ornithologist's Club and BTO's Birdwatcher's conference at Dumfries, and what a great conference it was! Gail and I made a weekend of it and we headed up on Friday and spent a couple of hours in the afternoon birding at the RSPB's Mersehead reserve.

I have always wanted to go to this reserve, but for some reason I have never got round to it, but I will most certainly go again! If I lived close by, it would certainly become one of my local patches. Primarily it is managed for the wintering Barnacle Geese, but there is a good range of habitats and these include merse (saltmarsh), freshwater grazing marsh, semi-improved grassland, wet woodland, sand dunes and hedgerows.

 Barnacle Geese (above & below)

Outside the visitor centre, in front of a cracking looking set of scrapes, there is a feeding station and it was swarming with Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Tree Sparrows. Among the avian throng was a male Yellowhammer looking quite exotic with its bright, canary yellow head!

It was bitterly cold as Gail and me set off around the reserve with a strong biting easterly wind driving stinging showers of hail, rain, sleet and snow! We just had a walk through the farmland, wet woodland and looked from the hides over the two pools. We decided to give walking down to the coast a miss because of the weather.

There was a reasonable number of Barnacle Geese in the fields and I counted 586. Sometimes I wish I could switch off from counting and just immerse myself in the atmosphere of the moment! A number of Little Egrets were trying their best to find food on the pools and we had three in total. In a field close to the visitor centre 28 Lapwings looked thoroughly miserable in the cold weather and were doing their best to hunker down out of the cold.

Out on the pools we had excellent views of Gadwall, Teal, Pintail, Wigeon and Shovelers. I won't bore you with the counts as I imagine they would be huge under estimates compared with the numbers actually present.


Three Reed Buntings and a Goldcrest in the hedgerow along the track later we were back at the visitor centre, and shortly after that heading off to the Sulwath brewery in Castle Douglas, one of my favourites!

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Winter To Spring?

Over the past couple of weeks it seems that we have moved from winter to spring! However, I have put a question mark at the end of my blog title because sometimes in March winter has a tendency to bite back, so it might not be all over yet!

Towards the end of the month I was at one of my wintering bird survey sites that includes a section of intertidal river and the weather conditions I jotted down in my notebook states that there were "occasional snow flurries". This was as much snow as we got, but it was cold, and there was evidence of some hard weather displacement of birds.

First up was a Jack Snipe that I picked up high flying south! It's so unusual to see Jack Snipes like this, as normally you have to virtually step on them before they fly. The next cold weather induced movement was of a Woodcock that I picked up, again high, flying across the river and heading southwest. At first I did a double take, because my brain was failing to compute what this dumpy, long-billed and high flying wader was! Again, the views of Woodcocks are normally when you put them up whilst walking through woodland in late winter!

My garden feeders were fairly busy during the cold snap and I was putting dried meal worms out for the local Blackbirds, but inevitably this was attracting large numbers of Starlings too. A flock of Starlings dropped in to the apple tree, and amongst them were four Fieldfares! Another example of some hard weather movement as the only other time I have had Fieldfare in my garden was again during some hard weather.

About a week ago I was at one of my mossland winter bird survey sites in southwest Lancs. It was a lovely clear day, still cold, with a light-moderate southwesterly wind. There was lots of agricultural activity and most of the land had either been ploughed, or was in the process of being ploughed. Even so, there was still a few birds to be seen.


Raptors were represented by a female Kestrel and Sparrowhawk, but there was no sign of the leucistic Buzzard. The ploughed fields were still attracting birds and one field held a number of corvids plus ten Lapwings and 24 Stock Doves. Even the Linnet flock was still finding food and I counted an impressive 236!

 Stock Dove

Two days later I was surveying on some mossland on the border between Lancs and Merseyside and it was another glorious, but cold day. As soon as I got out of my car I had three Corn Buntings calling and singing from overhead wires, not something you see or hear everyday.

The main feature of the morning was the number of Fieldfares and in a large field of damp permanent pasture I had 240 of these magnificent Thrushes. Twenty Redwings, 71 Common Gulls, 23 Lapwings and a cracking adult summer Med. Gull accompanied them in the same field.

Last Sunday saw me undertaking the first ringing session for the year at the Obs and it was a fairly typical quiet early spring affair. All I ringed was two Meadow Pipits, but like I said this is fairly typical for early March. There was some vis and I recorded 40 Meadow Pipits, 56 Woodpigeons, two Alba Wagtails, nine Goldfinches, a Rook, a Grey Wagtail and a Siskin all heading north, or thereabouts!

 Meadow Pipit

The only grounded migrant I had was the first spring Chiffchaff that worked its way along the hedge and ditch and some how managed to avoid the net!

It's going cold and easterly again this weekend, so that will probably put any migration on hold again for a few days. And thankfully I should have finished all my wintering bird surveys by next week, so I should be able to switch to fully spring mode and get out more on the patch.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Med to Moss

Blimey, what a busy week it's been, I'm looking forward to sinking a few real ales this evening! I've been doing wintering bird surveys everyday this week, and it's been a case of 'making hay whilst the sun shines', or more of a case of catching up on surveys whilst it's been bl**dy cold, but dry!

Monday saw me on a site close to some intertidal areas with adjacent 'bog standard' improved farmland. The first thing in my notebook for that day is a note saying "it's great seeing the number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls build up as they arrive from Africa in immaculate plumage". And I'm not wrong! I only had five this morning, but they looked stunning with crisp white head, neck and underparts, contrasting with sharp slate grey mantle. Beautiful!

Continuing on the Gull theme I also had three adult Med. Gulls among the Black-heads and all were adults in summer plumage! Raptors were thin on the ground with a single female Kestrel and Sparrowhawk, and two Buzzards.


There was just twelve Teal on the pond, but two Little Egrets there as well was a result of the high tide pushing the birds off the river.

Little Egret

Tuesday saw me on some agricultural moss land in the southwest of the county and it was very cold with a biting 15 - 20 mph northerly wind, and consequently birds were thin on the ground. Only just worthy of mention are eleven Linnets, three Mistle Thrushes, a female Kestrel and two Buzzards.


Wednesday I was in an area of improved grassland again and it was another cold day, although thankfully the northeasterly wind had abated a bit and made it feel more comfortable. It's interesting doing these surveys because you have to count everything you see or hear over a set period and this can sometimes lead to some interesting totals of species that you perhaps wouldn't normally count and record. An example of this was the 47 Carrion Crows I had.

On the subject of Corvids I did have a Raven heading northeast and I never tire of seeing these giant cousins of the Carrion Crow. A couple of Tree Sparrows was nice to see, but I don't want to trouble you with anything else.

On Thursday on a cold and frosty morning I was again on some agricultural moss land in west Lancs, and I had a few half decent farmland birds. There was more of those spanking Lesser Black-backed Gulls and I had 24 over the three hours I was there.

Perhaps the most impressive count I had, and of a red listed species, was 272 Linnets! Other farmland species included 24 Skylarks, 32 Lapwings, two Grey Partridges, twelve Stock Doves and a single Corn Bunting.

There was the merest trickle of vis in the form of a Grey Wagtail and two Siskins, all heading high east. I love the bugling calls of Whooper Swans and party of 17 flew over me with that haunting call, so evocative of the wild!

 Whooper Swans

A brief interlude Thursday afternoon was a calling Chiffchaff in my garden. Ian and me were sat in my sun lounge enjoying a coffee and putting the birding world to rights when we both looked up and said "Chiffie"! As soon as I opened the back door for better look and listen I caught sight of it high-tailing over the house! We could then hear it on the other side of the road calling away.

On Friday morning I was back on the same piece of moss land in the southwest of the county and it was a Thrush sort of morning. Again it was cold with clear skies and a ground frost, with that cold niggling southeasterly wind.

Most of the land in this area is managed as arable land for cereals or vegetables, but behind my watch point is a largish area of permanent grassland grazed by a herd of Belted Galloways. This field is fairly wet and has a number of wet flushes on it and it was here that a good number of Thrushes were feeding. I had 233 Fieldfares, eight Blackbirds and 17 Redwings. In the same field with the Thrushes were 367 Woodpigeons and 123 Starlings. I also recorded six Mistle Thrushes and two Song Thrushes, not in this field but on my transect walk.

A number of Gulls also fed in this wet field and I had 85 Black-headed Gulls and 78 Common Gulls. Eight Stock Doves, two Buzzards, 19 Chaffinches, 13 Skylarks, 18 Goldfinches, three Shovelers over, a Grey Wagtail, a Grey Partridge and five Lapwings were best of the rest.

I'm giving birding a rest tomorrow so I can spend some time harvesting some Willows from my garden for later planting at the Obs, and I'll also make a start on making half a dozen nest boxes or so for Pied Flycatchers to replace any dilapidated boxes at my Pied Fly nest box scheme. 

Sunday, 18 February 2018

First Trickle Of Vis

I headed to the southern section of the Obs recording area and had a walk over the farm fields and a brief look on the sea. I had 6 oktas cloud cover with a 10 mph southeasterly wind..

There was quite a few Magpies around this morning and in total I had 15. If any of them had been flying a little higher I would have said that they were on vis. However, I did have the first trickle of vis this morning in the shape of 13 Woodpigeons, five Skylarks and two Siskins. All were high and heading S/SE into the wind. Ian had a similar mix of species at the Point with the addition of Grey Wagtail and Mistle Thrush.

Pink-footed Geese were dropping in to the farm fields across the road from first light. I could hear them, but not see them, other than a group of 97 and another skein of 50 heading north.

I just go to the sea wall as the tide was turning and as such the muscle beds on the rocks were exposed for a short while and I had an unusually high count of waders for here. I counted 134 Oystercatchers, five Redshanks, 15 Sanderlings (not feeding on the muscle beds of course!), 170 Turnstones and a single Curlew.

I didn't walk through the dunes, as just before I was due to enter the grounds of the public school at this juncture, an ignorant, trespassing dog walker with his rat on a stick (some kind of small terrier) headed that way. He would have flushed anything that was in there, so what would have been the point.

I have permission to go on the land owned by the school for the purposes of bird ringing and bird recording, but some of these dog walkers just think that having a dog entitles them to access all areas. We are talking about school grounds adjacent to a promenade and the beach here, so it's not as if there isn't anywhere to walk a dog! I hasten to add that I have friends who are dog owners and they are lovely law abiding people, as most dog walkers are, but sometimes you get a few that give the many a bad name!

Back to the birds. A quick look on the sea revealed very little, just six males and two female Eiders! On my way back to my car a Water Rail was calling from a ditch and it was close. As soon as I made a slight move to take a better look in to the ditch it stopped! It was a good record for the site though and could well be a bird on it's way back north as this site isn't typical Water Rail wintering habitat.  

 Snowdrops. The only thing I photographed this morning.

The weather isn't looking too bad this week, so I am hoping to get a few of my wintering bird surveys in. It won't be long until spring and then I can get back to the Obs properly and do some migration monitoring and ringing!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

VP Red Kite and Raven

Yesterday morning I was out at one of my wintering bird survey plots on some Lancashire mossland carrying out a Vantage Point (VP) and transect survey. It was a lovely clear day, for a change, with a light southwesterly wind and Gail had joined me for a bit of fresh air and exercise. Gail does occasionally join me and in addition to providing me with some most welcome company, another pairs of eyes is useful. She is very good at picking birds up at a distance, even though she might not be able to identify them, and sometimes gets on birds before me! I had quipped on Facebook yesterday that it was a belated Valentine's Day treat for her, but in reality the treat was the sighting of a Red Kite.

Anthony McGeehan in his book 'Birds Through Irish Eyes' says Red Kites are big, lanky basketball players. Gangly at rest, with long limbs and a loping gait, launched into flight they exude elegance and agility. They are ballet on wings. The forked tail swivels freely and operates independently of wing hands that arch and thrust forwards. How can a raptor the size of a lumbering Buzzard be so graceful? And lumbering Buzzard is what I first thought when I picked up the Red Kite. It was a dot in the distance and I thought I would have a look at it when it got closer as I was busy recording some singing Skylarks on the map. I then looked up again and Gail said "what's that"?, and I said "oh it's a Buzzard, I mean Red Kite"! This lanky basketball player of a bird slowly made it's way past us and headed southwest across the moss. Where was my camera? In the fecking car!

Not this mornings Red Kite, obviously, but one of many we saw in Dumfries
and Galloway a few years ago! 

Ravens and Red Kites are certainly seen more often in Lancashire now and indeed in the lowland areas of  Lancashire. The Raven is far more common than Red Kite, and is making a come back due to decreased persecution from game keepers, though this still goes on in the uplands. This morning we had a calling Raven heading north.

Out on some recently tilled land a group of Thrushes and Starlings were feeding, very probably, on invertebrates brought closer to the surface by agricultural activity; six Mistle Thrushes, 40 Fieldfares and 15 Starlings made up the throng. In addition to the Thrush ensemble 24 Stock Doves was a reasonable count alongside larger numbers of Woodpigeons.

A large finch flock was still present on the moss, and has been all winter, and we recorded 253 Linnets and 52 Goldfinches! Two Kestrels, two Buzzards (including the leucistic bird) and a female Sparrowhawk played mayhem with the finches continually putting them up. A lack of Pink-footed Geese was notable, but that didn't detract from a very pleasant morning spent surveying with my bestest bud, her indoors! I have to say that as Gail reads my blog!

The forecast is half decent for tomorrow, so I will get out somewhere at the Obs, and at last it is getting light earlier. You can't beat early mornings!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Brass Monkey Weather

It's funny how a brief interlude of cold weather gets us all talking these days. Frost has now become a scarcity in my neck of the woods, a bit like how snow used to be; snow is virtually non-existent now! Gone are the days when farmers couldn't lift their spuds because the ground was frozen, now they can't lift them because it is too wet to travel on the fields, or the numerous days in winter when I was at infant school and our little bottles of milk would arrive frozen!

It was cold this morning when I started my hedge survey in the north of the county, in fact it was minus 5 degrees Celsius with glorious clear skies and not a breath of wind. The farm I was on is divided in two by a road and I surveyed hedgerows below the road close to the river first, before surveying the hedges across the road on the hillier section of the farm.

The farm has a gloriously large old barn and it has been sympathetically restored for agricultural use still, retaining all its nooks and crannies that House Sparrows nest and roost in. As I got out of my car the House Sparrows were noisily awakening from their slumbers and my count of 8 is woefully low, this is just how many that I saw.

On to the frost covered low pastures and a flock of 254 Lapwings in a tight pack was nice to see. I then had a good count of 126 Linnets; two groups heading south across the farm, fairly low, as though they were exiting a roost from somewhere.

Frosty Lapwings

As I weaved my way along my survey hedges towards the river I encountered two Song Thrushes, six Stock Doves and 32 noisy Fieldfares in with a larger group of noisy Starlings! There were four Brown Hares in the meadows by the river and on the river itself was a group of three female Goosanders.

 Distant Goosanders

It was a bit quieter on the other side of the road on the hillier section of the farm, and all I added was a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker, a single Buzzard and a fluffy looking Goldcrest feeding in a mature hedgerow.

 Looking towards Yorkshire

It's looking unsettled over the next few days and I've got a few days at a beer festival, so it could be after weekend before I post again.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018


It was chilly yesterday morning at my survey site in west Lancs, and the cloudy conditions with a biting east-northeasterly wind didn't do anything to raise the temperature or my spirits! But some Thrushes did, well raised my spirits anyway.

Bits of field work has been done since my last visit here and some stubble has been ploughed, but a flock of 43 Chaffinches were still finding areas to feed. Woodpigeons, numbering 122, were also feeding in similar areas to the Chaffinches, but others were feeding on some wet fields.

The wet fields were where the Thrushes were and they were a pleasure to watch; 133 Fieldfares and 37 Redwings. Occasionally a few rays of sun momentarily broke through the clouds, and if the Fieldfares and Redwings were facing the right direction they were illuminated like a spot light on an actor or soloing musician on a stage! Stunning!

 Fieldfare (above) and Redwing (below). I didn't photograph any of these
beauties yesterday, so these are shots of two individuals I ringed from my 

Accompanying the Thrushes were 19 Rooks, 16 Jackdaws, 127 Black-headed Gulls, nine Common Gulls and 178 Starlings. All were taking advantage of invertebrates close to or on the ground surface because of the wet conditions.

I can't imagine many wet conditions for a few hours tomorrow morning at my next survey site as it is forecast to be cold tonight, and a quick look at my BBC weather app shows that it will be hovering around -5 celsius! I must remember to get out my fleece lined winter seawatching trousers!