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24 Apr 2015

Bangor University Bird Club visit to Hilbre.

Many of the trainees ringers I ring with in SCAN are members of Bangor University Bird Club and They're pretty active and have organised a number of  field trips recently. Remembering my days at Manchester University Bird Club and some of the great trips we organised, (Spurn Bird Obs, Anglesey, Suffolk, the Scottish Highlands)  I suggested they come across to Hilbre for the day.  I pointed out  I couldn't promise them many birds to ring though. As it happened we had a great day and those with ringing permits were able to process a number of new species.

I arranged to meet up with them at West Kirby marine lake and drive them across to Hilbre and we were on the island by just after 8 am. Steve had been on overnight and phoned me to say they'd had a small number of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs but that there was also a Redstart on the island.

With introductions made I the group were  soon involved with processing a few birds whilst Steve & I wandered off to see if we could find the Redstart. We did and it was conveniently in the heli!

The jet black throat and lack of moult contrast in the wing coverts made this an adult male as opposed to a 2nd calendar year one we'd caught the previous week. Taking it back to the Obs I ringed it and pointed out the ageing criteria to the group and it was duly ringed and released. It stayed on the island for the duration of our stay and was seen several times.
With overhead migration in full swing and a few birds to ring we were kept busy. Doreen kept us well lubricated with tea ( or in some case hot chocolate!). Although we didn't catch many birds we were also able to show the group a Greenland Wheatear that Conor had the pleasure of ringing whilst Molly ringed a Linnet. Everyone got to see meadow Pipits in the hand and a Rock Pipit allowed John to show Will the finer points of  pre-breeding moult.

There was even a new bird for me to ring when a 2nd calendar year White Wagtail was caught in a Potter trap. Although I've ringed the Pied race I'd not had the pleasure of ringing the nominate White race.
All in all it was a very enjoyable day and it was a pleasure to entertain such an enthusiastic group.
Left to right: Amelia, Conor, Janni, Molly, Will and yours truly.

With many thanks to Steve, John, Colin & Doreen for helping out and letting the group ring some birds. It was touch and go Friday whether my Landrover would be back on the road as it needed a new steering drop arm and front shocks but it was finished in time thanks to Stewart's hard work.


21 Apr 2015

GBH - a Great Big Heron

When news broke last week that Ash Fisher had found his and the UK's 2nd Great  Blue Heron on St Mary's Isles of Scilly I had to  many commitments work wise to be able to drop everything and go. It was just as well I did because the bird disappeared the next day and with thick fog over a couple of days wasn't seen until it resurfaced on Bryher. The 1st UK record was found by Ash on the Scilly's in December 2007 during a period of strong westerly storms. That bird didn't hang around and only a fortunate few living on the islands go to see it.

Steve &  I were chatting about the GBH  on Hilbre and apparently he and Thomas had concluded there were two certainties about this bird, or at least one certainty and a probability. One, I was going to buckle and go for it and two, it'd be there when they took their annual holiday in October! That's exactly what happened with the recent long staying Northern Water Thrush -see here

Plans were made and changed and changed again and eventually I picked Alastair up at midnight from his house and set off through the night to Penzance in time for a couple of hours kip in the car. That was the plan but I hadn't allowed for the big fella's warthog impressions so by 06.00 I was wandering the streets of Penzance and watching the sun rise over a distant St Michael's Mount. St Mary's resident and all round top man, Higgo, had rung Al and told him the Scillonian was leaving 45 minutes earlier than usual because of the tides and to bring wellies as the low water meant we'd have to wade ashore once we'd taken one of the inter island boats to Bryher. The 2nd part of the message was never communicated to me...............................

After an uneventful journey in brilliant sunshine, during which we drunk a few brews and nattered away to old friends or just listened to Dan P talk when we couldn't get a word in, we arrived at St Mary's and piled straight on to the inter island boat to Bryher. With news from Higgo, who was waiting on Bryher that the bird was still there everyone was in high spirits

It was at this point I found out from the boatman that he'd have to ferry us ashore in a dingy a few at a time and then wade ashore. Most people decided to take their shoes off and roll their trouser legs up but figuring that if I stood on a weaver fish or sharp shell I could do my self some serious injury I decided on the wet boot option and consequently squelched around all day .Initially we'd planned to stay a couple of days but we both agreed that if we could we'd get off the same day as we both needed to get home. Knowing I had dry socks and a change of footwear in the car back in Penzance made the decision slightly easier. My wellies were also  in the car.....................

The man himself was waiting for us on the beach and after a brisk walk to the Hell Bay Hotel where the heron was fishing on the Great Pool. The occasional walker passed and caused it to stop fishing and momentarily freeze but it didn't seem to concerned.. However, it did appear to take exception to a photographer who decided she had to get that little bit closer by going right down the waters edge and flew to the opposite end of the pool. She may or may not have been responsible but justice was done as we'd all being enjoying good views as it worked its way round the edge of the pool closer to us and getting some good views and she didn't!







By now we were starving so we took our leave of the heron to wander up to the Vine Cafe for a pot of tea and a sandwich with Higgo. Sitting in the cafe he pointed out a sight I'd not seen since we lived in Suffolk in the 70's  - a House Sparrows nest made in a bush like a Weaver's nest!

With an hour or so to kill, before the 15.30 deadline to be picked up for the journey back to St Mary's, we meandered around admiring the view and doing  a bit of birding before heading towards a spot where a colony of very rare Dwarf Pansy's were known to grow.

The weather was and scenery were spectacular and this was my 1st visit to Bryher since 2005. I'd forgotten how beautiful it was.


With no sign of the Hoopoe Higgo had found the previous day we walked down to the beach to find the Pansy's. They really are tiny and there are only two places (both on the Scilly's) where the species can be found in the UK.


They are hard to pick out but there is one flowering in the top right of the photo and several more with flower buds visible.

Luckily we didn't have to repeat our wading antics as the rising tide meant the boat could get close to the quay to pick us up. Reaching the quay we found an old friend waiting to pick us up. Joe Pinder's 'Sapphire' on which we'd spent many a pelagic trip chumming for seabirds and tagging Blue Sharks. Last time I was on the Sapphire was hours after I'd heard our old Labrador, Molly, had died whilst I was away - see here


Once safely back on the Scillonian wit ha pasty and another mug of tea it was time to relax and try to sleep for a few hours before heading back to Cheshire. With Al sleeping most of the way  I made good time and completed the journey in just under 6 hours before falling into bed after and epic 25 hours.

17 Apr 2015

Hoylake - land of the Wirral Bedouin

Mark rang and said he'd be going up to Hoylake to try again for the Surf Scoters and Velvet Scoters with Malc if  I was interested? Even though the weather forecast was far from ideal there appeared to be a weather window before 11 am before the wind speed increased to 50-60 mph.

Picking me up around 08.45 we were soon walking out west from the lifeboat station aware that the wind was actually increasing with every step we took. Our weather window had rapidly disappeared and a full blown gale was developing. Luckily Mark picked up 3 Velvet Scoters (a Cheshire tick for him & Malc) and after some diligent searching I picked up an adult male Surf Scoter in flight heading east.

One species we didn't expect to see was Meadow Pipit yet as we scanned the Scoter flock hundreds of these little passerines could be seen flying west just above the wave tops.

By this time even the sand sailors had given up racing as the sand was being whipped up behind us in a storm that wouldn't have looked out of place in Lawrence of Arabia - time to leave!



Some say he looks like Peter O'Toole. Others say something different. Malc battling his way back across the sand to the mainland.

13 Apr 2015

Migration in full swing

A stunning couple of days on Hilbre with the weather conditions just right for a bit of migration! It started late last week with not one, not two, but three Ring Ouzels being caught and ringed on Thursday. This is presumably a record for the number caught and ringed in one day by the Obs. I managed to get across in the evening and one of the birds was still there. The sunset was beautiful and the weather omens looked good for the next morning............


Above: the old Liverpool Dock & Harbour Company telegraph station with the sun setting behind it.

The morning dawned cool and slightly misty. By 6 am we were up and opening mist nets to the sounds of Goldcrest and Chiffchaffs calling. There'd obviously been a small fall of birds during the night. The first few rounds produced a handful of these two species and a few Willow Warblers.
One of the Chiffchaffs was a control wit ha BTO ring so it'll be interesting to see where and when it was ringed.

As the sun rose the morning got better. Two or possibly three Ring Ouzels were on the island. one was a ringed bird from the previous day but at least one more was unringed! As often happens birds appear mid morning and today was no exception with a fine male Redstart making an appearance - the first of the spring.


Overhead migration was in full spring mode with Goldfinches, Redpolls, White / Pied Wagtails and numerous meadow Pipits being logged. A highlight was Lapland Bunting that flew calling over the Obs balcony. Several tree Pipits were also logged during the morning.

There's been one or two Merlin's hanging around the islands recently and one gave fantastic views as it tried to chase down one of the numerous Meadow Pipits that were passing through in small groups.



A few Wheatears appeared and four were caught and ringed.


All were 2nd calendar year birds that, like the one below had moulted their median coverts in their post juvenile moult last year so showed a good contrast between the black adult type and the brown feathers of the rest of the wing.


The Ring Ouzels gave us the run around for most of the day but just as I was packing up to leave before the high tide one of them got caught in the SK heligoland!




Its always a privilege to see these mountain blackbirds close up and it was the perfect end to the day.

7 Apr 2015

Surfs up!

The discovery of what will be the first accepted record of Surf Scoter for Cheshire and Wirral by the Lighthouse dream team meant some major yomping out to the tide edge off Hoylake RNLI station was in order. My first attempt failed but we did manage to see 5 Velvet Scoter and and two Long -tailed Ducks amongst the estimated 20,000 Common Scoter offshore - both scarce off our coast. My next two attempts ended in abject failure due to the torrential rain and poor visibility coupled with a choppy sea. It wan't until the weather improved last Thursday afternoon that I managed to catch up with what appeared to be an adult male Surf Scoter. This was interesting as the bird Steve had seen and photographed was a first winter bird. Good Friday's weather was poor so I left it until Saturday to go back again and join Pete Antrobus as the tide ebbed where we found the adult male again. All was explained when we found out Frank had had both the adult male and the  juvenile male together earlier in the day. Incredibly four birds were reported later  the same day at low tide.

The day Steve had first seen one of the birds (and photographed it) we were back ringing at Barry's for what will be our last winter session in his garden. It was a good session with 80+ birds being processed including good numbers of Goldfinches & Greenfinches. Highlight was this adult Jay who proceeded to express its displeasure by drawing blood from both John & I.






They are gorgeous birds!

Elsewhere I spent an amazing 15 minutes watching a Treecreeper building its nest behind some loose bark from point blank range in Stanney Woods and within minutes discovered a Nuthatch using mud to make the entrance hole to its preferred nest hole smaller. With Long-tailed Tits discovered nest building as well it appears the birds really do think spring is here. The Wood Anemone's are also flowering in Stanney but as yet there is no sign of the lesser -spotted Woodpecker.

1 Apr 2015

Little Egrets fishing

Who'd have believed that over 30 years ago when I twitched a Little Egret that they'd become a successful colonist and so common that I regularly get one feeding in the grounds of a special school a few minutes walk from my house! They're even on my garden list as its presumably the same bird feeding near by that first flew over the garden on the 24th December 2013.

They've become regular visitors to the tidal channels around Hilbre at low tide and I had the chance to view one close up recently and watch its fishing technique. I'm assuming they are feeding on shrimps that they disturb from the sandy bottom by 'paddling' in the way gulls do on land to bring worms to the surface.

I could  see the water surface vibrate as they 'puddled the bottom. Once a prey item had been disturbed they made a sudden dart to catch it before resuming the stirring up of the bottom again. Occasionally they'd make a dash across the water to try and catch a small fish or shrimp that had fled.


 In the photo below the bird is puddling the bottom wit hits feet to disturb prey. You can see the vibrations on the water surface.
 There it goes! The chase is on.



 Got it.

Another successful technique is peering around the edges of rocks, presumably for small crabs or fish.


They're opportunistic feeders and the one by my house must be feeding on amphibians or small fish in the stream that runs through the school grounds. Who'd have thought 30 years that Little Egrets would have become so common in some areas they barely warrant a second glance. But, somewhere out there, there must be another vagrant Snowy Egret so I'll keep looking....................

29 Mar 2015

Merlin on Hilbre.

Last weekend Steve & I ventured over to Hilbre to have a few hours sea-watching over the high tide. A Merlin had been seen recently hunting around the islands and sure enough as I drove between Middle Eye & Hilbre it was seen crouched over a Turnstone it had just killed. Unfortunately it flew off before we could get photo's and a Carrion Crow forced it to drop its breakfast.

As we drove up the ramp to the Obs it was suddenly seen perched on 'Wheatear Hill' and we both managed to get some good shots  - in Steve's case some video as well.

Meadow Pipits were in full song-flight mode and it was nice to see one of our ringed birds perched up just outside the Obs gate. He was busy singing and trying to attract a mate despite the presence of the Merlin!


Later, at the north end, we watched a Rock Pipit and this to gave good views and allowed some good photo's to be taken.


The sea-watch was quite successful with good numbers of Red-throated Divers around. We also had the first Little Gulls of the year. The huge number of Common Scoters never fails to impress and we commented that there must surely be a Surf Scoter with them. All credit to Kenny D and Al C who found one a couple of days later by walking out towards the tides edge from the Hoylake lifeboat station! An excellent and well overdue addition to the Cheshire & Wirral bird list.

A small group of Redshank and Turnstone showed well as the high tide had forced them ff their usual roost. They weren't perturbed by our presence as they moved to higher and higher ledges as the tide flooded.



Back at the Obs for a cooked breakfast Steve found two drake Eiders from the balcony whilst the local male Kestrel carried on its crusade against the local vole population.


With time for a few essential repairs to the Obs balcony and some good birding it was well worth the trip across and to complete the raptor theme the long staying presumed escaped American Red-tailed Hawk showed well from Steve's drive as I dropped him off.