31 May 2021

Franklins Gull

I was on Hilbre on a bird-less and blustery May morning, wondering when the weather was ever going to improve, when a chance message from Fred changed my plans for the rest of the day. He'd decided to go for an adult Franklins Gull that had been displaying to Black-headed Gulls at St Aidans RSPB reserve near Leeds. This reserve was formerly an old opencast mining site that was flooded after the adjoining river bank collapsed in 1988.

I saw my first Franklins Gull whilst still at school in Suffolk in November 1977 when a 2nd winter bird spent a few days at Lowestoft - I also saw my 1st Glaucous Gull, Purple Sandpipers and Little Auk the same day!The Little Auk flew over our heads, inland, with a flock of Starlings. Since then I've seen several more with one in Kenysham, Bristol on a flooded playing field and one following a plough in Cornwall. They're probably the most attractive of the American vagrant gulls and as the journey was only a short one with the promise of a few other nice species I jumped at the offer of a lift so headed off Hilbre and joined Fred at his office just off the M56 where we were joined by Malc.

We arrived in good time and parked up to admire the wetland vista in front of us. There were birds everywhere and the whole site was teeming with lapwings and numerous species of duck, warblers and grebes. The skies looked ominous and we had some terrific cracks of thunder accompanied by forked lightning.

Walking to where theFranklins Gull had been showing we were pleasantly surprised to find it was one of the closest birds to us! Much closer than any of the other Franklins I'd seen (the Lowestoft one was on the roof of a port building). It occasionally flew round before settling again but eventually flew off to the opposite side of the reserve out of view.  

Franklins Gull

Nearby my attention kept getting distracted by a pair of Common Terns with the female sat on a fence post calling until the male presented her with a small fish or newt as part of their pair bonding.I'm pretty sure my wife would prefer to be presented with a G & T rather than a slippery amphibian or fish.

Common Tern - I'd never noticed the yellow tip to the bill before.

With booming Bitterns, pinging Bearded Tits and the soft chatter of Reed Warblers accompanying the 'zit, zit, zing' of Reed Buntings it really was a feast for the ears compared to my impoverished inland home patch.
Male Reed Bunting singing 
Judging that the surrounding rain showers would pass us by we decided to walk further into the reserve to look for one of its rarer inhabitants. Black-necked Grebes breed at Woolston Eyes in Cheshire but are generally quite distant. Here at St Aidans several pairs breed and can be see nat close range from some of the footpaths dissecting the site. This smart looking grebe is migratory and returns every spring to the UK to breed before heading off again in the autumn to warmer climes.

We were lucky enough to find several birds feeding well grown young and close enough to see their main prey was newts! That eye colour! They're incredible looking birds and like all grebes were heavily persecuted in the past for their plumage for the millinery trade.

Black-necked Grebes split parenting duties and when the young are a few days old each parent takes responsibility for one or two (depending on brood size) of the youngsters until they become independent. 

Black-necked Grebe
Great-crested Grebes are another species that was persecuted for fashion industry and they hold a special place in my memories of my late dad. As a kid they were till quite scarce and I remember a pair breeding on a local gravel pit when we lived in Essex in around 1968 (just before we moved to Suffolk where my birding education really started). I'd just got my 1st ever pair of binoculars  - a pair of Prinz 8 x 30 - for either a Christmas or birthday present (or probably a combined present as I'm one of those unfortunate people whose birthday is just after Christmas and New Year) and dad took me to see these wonderful birds that had been found by another birding influence in my early life Mrs Jo Herriott. Mrs Herriott used to have Robins feeding from her hand and reared a brood of orphan Blue Tits and had photos taken in the mirror of the recent fledglings pulling her hair pins out! Anyway, enough reminiscing, St Aidan's also has a healthy breeding population of Great-crested Grebes. Again, this is a species I regularly see on the sea at Hilbre  but usually distant.
Our window of opportunity to bird without getting wet was decreasing every minute and with storms now surrounding us we headed back towards the car park - just in time as the heavens opened! We still had time for another goodie though when  I spotted a Roe Deer feeding, unconcerned by the number of people using the footpaths, in a fenced area.
What a great reserve and a credit to the RSPB sand the people who manage it. Hopefully I'll be able to visit again in the future. It was nice to see so many people making use of the reserve who weren't necessarily bird watchers but were just out for a walk in the countryside. To me this is one of the keys to helping safeguard our wildlife - engaging people with the countryside.

Male Pochard

20 May 2021

Hilbre 12th May

Another enjoyable day at the Bird Observatory undertaking census & ringing work as well as some maintenance. Another early start as well with the alarm going off at 4 am - not that I needed it as I was awake well before it went off. 

It was a beautifully bright but cold morning when I arrived but I knew rain squalls were forecast later in the morning. The first round of the heligoland traps was unproductive but a Common Sandpiper was picked up on call at the north end and the located on the rocks near the Whaleback.

As it got warmer a few birds started moving and a male Blackcap and a couple of Willow Warbler were ringed and processed.

The island is looking very attractive at the moment with the Thrift in full flower and covering the tops of the cliffs.

Eider have gone from a Hilbre rarity to now regular and following last years first confirmed successful breeding for the county nearby its hoped that they may breed again this year. Two males are in close attendance to a female and were displaying to her   - something I personally hadn't seen on Hilbre before. Incredibly the female can't fly and has a damaged wing. She was first seen on Hilbre in 2018 and has managed to survive against the odds.

For once the weather forecast got it right and I got a good soaking working on the Obs balcony steps. The rain did bring down a few more birds and another two Willow Warblers were ringed with another being seen in the Obs garden.

Wader numbers are decreasing as birds move north to breed but Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Whimbrel and Turnstone are still moving through. As the tide dropped and exposed the seaweed covered rocks a small group of Turnstone flew in to feed. Some were in stunning breeding plumage and it won't be long before they head to the Arctic breeding grounds.

Guillemots don't breed around Hilbre or the Dee / Mersey estuaries but we get regular numbers, following stormy weather, from the N Wales population. Normally they are seen floating quite far out but recently one has taken to roosting up at the north end providing closer than usual views.

Another good day wit ha small number ofbirds ringed, some interesting sightings and some vital maintenance work carried out.

11 May 2021

Green-winged orchids

 With the lockdown last year I couldn't get across to Gop Hill in N Wales, a site only 25 minutes away from the house where we'd seen Autumn Ladies tresses in 2019 - see here. I was keen to go back as the site also hosts a good number of Green-winged Orchids in the spring. With a friend having recently visited the site and reported 100's of plants in flower I decided to make the short trip across the border to have a look myself.

The Green-winged Orchids were easy enough to find but many were past their best having been blasted by the recent high winds and heavy rain. There were literally 100's of flowering spikes with none much taller than 10 cm. Searching the hillside on my hands and knees I found a few nice flowers to photograph - often stretched out full length on the short cropped grass to make full use of the cameras macro lens.

Theres also an old quarry on site and the sheltered corners below the rock faces held a few Early Purple Orchids.

A great couple of hours on site culminating in getting soaking wet as yet another squall blew through.

7 May 2021

Garden birds nesting activity.

The local birds certainly think spring is here - despite the gale force winds and hail! I've watched a Robin building a nest right at the base of a shrub among some ground cover plants and when I checked there were five eggs in a beautifully hidden nest at ground level. These hatched successfully but unfortunately the nest was predated before the young fledged

As Robins are very territorial I was surprised to find a second nest in a previously ignored nest box on our garden wall only a few metres from the first nest. The sitting bird flew out when I routinely checked all the garden nest boxes. 

This 2nd nest ended up with 6 eggs & six young hatched and will hopefully soon be fledging.

Brood of 6 healthy Robins

Several pairs of Blue & Great Tits are on eggs and this pair spent quite some time exploring this box on an old ivy covered tree stump. Lovely to see this activity so close from the comfort and warmth of the study! 
Every year Blackbirds attempt to nest early in the garden and every year they get predated. Later clutches seem to be more successful as the nests seem to be better hidden once all the shrubs are in full leaf. This nest was 30 cm above the ground in a holly bush but very exposed. I didn't think it would last long - it didn't! But not for the reason I thought. I came home the other day and found a sad little pile of brown female Blackbird feathers 2m from the nest. It looks like she got taken by a Sparrowhawk.

We've a Tawny Owl box on an old oak in the back garden. A Barn Owl roosted in it last spring and the year before that Jackdaws nested but abandoned the clutch of four eggs. This year Stock Doves have been checking it out.

If they do nest the box will probably have to be fumigated at the end of the season! 

Although not quite garden birds pour local pair of Little Owls can be seen from the garden and seem to be fairly settled in their preferred oak after having seen off the unwelcome attentions of Grey Squirrels, Stock Doves and a pair of Jackdaws.

Hopefully our garden nesters will have a successful breeding season.

3 May 2021

Hilbre visit

I've managed a few trips to Hilbre recently - mainly to help on the never ending maintenance necessary on the Obs & the heligoland on a windswept and salt sprayed island. As usual the sunrise was spectacular and the dockside cranes at Liverpool docks took on a prehistoric appearance silhouetted by the rising sun.

These photos were from a couple of weeks ago when there were still a few winter visitors lingering alongside newly arrived migrants. Brent Geese numbers were greatly reduced as the majority of birds had already headed off to their high arctic breeding grounds. Among the commoner Pale-bellied there was still a lingering Dark-bellied bird.

My first Whimbrels of the year were seen and heard but the majority of the wintering Curlews have moved off to breed. Other winter visitors included Red-throated Divers and a few Common Scoter.

The resident Meadow Pipits were proclaiming their territory with parachuting display flights and also singing whilst perched on the tops of bushes or from fence posts.

Another vocal resident this time of year are the local Wrens. They seem to thrive on Hilbre and their breeding numbers are boosted with a small but regular passage. Linnets have also returned to breed and the adult males are beginning to look stunning in their resplendent red waistcoats.

Not many birds were caught and ringed but we did catch this female Blackcap with a 'pollen horn' where pollen has tuck to her feathers as she searches for insects in the blackthorn flowers which are now beginning to cloak the bushes in clouds of white flowers and hiding the lethal thorns!