So Long South Walney

As I write this post I’m sat in my student flat in Cornwall having recently arrived back from my first PhD field season studying breeding Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the northwest. Although very low chick survival rates, likely resulting from bad weather at inopportune moments during the breeding season, meant that I was unable to collect fantastic chick growth data, the season was otherwise successful with many lessons learned (chief among them that nail varnish doesn’t last long on gull toe nails) and some very useful data collected. I also had an incredible time, honing my field research skills and enjoying the birds and other wildlife inhabiting South Walney NR, my home for the last three months. Despite spending less time actively birding than planned, South Walney delivered some real highlights over the course of the season, chief among them a female Serin which graced the cottage garden on the evening of the 1st of June. Other memorable events include a miniature fall of Spotted Flycatchers in May and a flyover Osprey at the end of my first week on the island. Perhaps the most bird-related entertainment however was derived from our tame Lesser Black-backed Gull (dubbed Gullbert) which Sarah raised as a chick in 2015. Gullbert spent most mornings in the car park begging for food and, whilst occasionally irritating, provided hours of entertainment as we mostly failed to teach him tricks.

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Kali bonding with Gullbert.
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Gullbert’s complete lack of fear made for some great photo opportunities.

Over the last few weeks of the season, birding time was very much at a premium however I did manage two final reserve ticks in the form of a group of Great Crested Grebes on the sea over high tide and a long-awaited Sparrowhawk dashing through the car park scattering Starlings and House Sparrows in its path. Another notable record was a stunning leucistic Curlew roosting on the saltmarsh over high tide on July 15th. After tweeting my record shots of the bird, I found out that the bird is regularly seen on the reserve and was also seen at Brockholes in Lancashire in March 2016 by Bill Aspin. I also had the privilege of being joined for the final few days by Kali and spent a couple of enjoyable evenings sipping fizz in the picnic area as the sun went down over the twinkling lights of industrial Barrow (I assure you it was more romantic than it sounds!) Kali also was a great help during a colour-ringing session where, under the supervision of the BTO, we rounded up and marked around 25 surviving chicks in the colony on the spit.

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A record shot of the leucistic Curlew on the saltmarsh on July 15th,
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Kali making new friends.
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Field season finished!

On the final afternoon, the Walney gods shined on me one last time as I was woken by a text from the warden Sarah informing me of a Little Owl roosting on the derelict barn north of the reserve. This diminutive owl is a species I rarely catch up with, the last being in East Yorkshire in 2015, and so Kali and I took a wander up the road in stunning sunshine to take a look. Following the Scilly Rock Thrush in April, this was only Kali’s second twitch but the Little Owl duly obliged, perching out in the open and giving cracking views. Kali is now 2/2 on twitches and is shaping up to be a handy good luck charm (I hope she doesn’t mind when I drag her out to the arse end of Blakeney point in a Siberian gale for a skulking Gray’s Gropper!) I managed to grab a couple of days at home with the family in Manchester on my way back down to Cornwall and even squeezed in a visit to Chorlton WP. My teenage patch was predictably quiet, the heavy clouds and sprawling weedy vegetation combining to give the place that classic stultifying atmosphere so characteristic of summer visits. Although the birdlife was practically non-existent, a decent southeasterly passage of Swifts was a nice sign of visible migration and a hint of the year’s inexorable progression. Now, after 9 hours spent on 5 trains with a coolbox full of gull vomit on Monday, I’m back in Cornwall facing down the prospect of long hours of data analysis. Hopefully though I’ll be able to squeeze in some seawatching around my work commitments, with a planned trip to St Ives this weekend giving me my first chance at some Procellariform action!

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My first Little Owl since 2015!
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Kali’s second (if slightly less mega) twitch!
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Perusing the Polders

During the first week of July, I made my first trip to the Netherlands to attend the Animal Movement Analysis course at the University of Amsterdam. Although the majority of the trip was spent learning how to analyse spatial data, I did manage to get an evening exploring the cracking local wetland reserve of Polder Ijdoorn, thanks to a lift from Dutch birder and fellow course participant Sander Lagerveld. Leaving the city centre, the countryside rapidly opened up into the anticipated mosaic of pancake-flat arable fields surrounded by drainage ditches which, whilst somewhat monotonous, created wide open vistas replete with brooding summer skies.

The reserve, located only a few miles from the city centre, consisted of a mixture of reedbed, ditches and a large scrape that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the north Norfolk coast. Whilst a relative novelty for a birder largely confined to the western fringes of Britain, the species present were also highly reminiscent of what you might expect from a mid-summer visit to Titchwell or Cley. As we walked up to the viewing point a couple of Cuckoos perched up on a post giving great scope views, sadly the first of the year for me of this iconic species. The scrape held truly impressive numbers of waders with triple figures of Ruff in varying states of moult and a smart Spotted Redshank the pick of the bunch. At least three Garganey and a Great White Egret provided some variety whilst several flyover Spoonbills and a pair of Red-crested Pochard picked up by accompanying Dutch birder Bart Hoekstra were also noteworthy. Perhaps the highlight of the evening were a couple of distant Bluethroat hopping around at the back of the scrape, picked up by a local Dutch birder who later turned out to be none other than the world yearlist record holder Arjan Dwarshuis!

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A record shot of one of two showy Cuckoo.
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The wadertastic scrape at Polder Ijdoorn

 

The evening excursion provided some welcome respite from the academic intensity of the course and the chance to experience a great birding site close to a major city. Hopefully I’ll be able to return to Amsterdam in winter and witness the incredible numbers of migrant geese that the country is famous for! The rest of the trip was relatively quiet birdwise although a White Stork on the walk to the science park one afternoon was a nice surprise. Also unusual was a gang of urban Grey Herons scavenging leftover fish at a street market in the suburbs. Apparently these birds are famous for their boldness but the incongruity of several herons perched on top of a fast food stand mere metres away was striking for this Brit at least! The sighting got me thinking about the fitness consequences of urban living for this usually retiring species – perhaps an avenue for future research if I ever get sick of gulls.

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Urban Grey Herons channeling their inner gull!

Fun in Gijon

A lull in fieldwork activity combined with some incredibly cheap flights allowed me to make an unexpected flying visit to Asturias over the May bank holiday weekend to see Kali who is out there completing her MSc dissertation as part of the University of Exeter’s Wild Cricket Project. Although the trip was not wildlife focussed, most of our time was spent at the study site, an impressive low intensity wildflower rich meadow near La Aguda with incredible invertebrate diversity, including the study population of Field Crickets (Gryllus campestris). The level of monitoring effort involved in the project is truly incredibly with each individual cricket followed throughout its adult phase by remote cameras and it was a real privilege to get to visit the site in person. Although the bird diversity wasn’t particularly rich in terms of continental specialities, I did catch up with Black Kite, Serin, Iberian Chiffchaff and Iberian Green Woodpecker around La Aguda. I also spent a lot of time playing around with Kali’s Nikon D3400 and got some shots of the abundant butterflies that I was quite happy with. On the last evening, we took a walk along the coastal past east from Gijon where a showy Zitting Cisticola and a family of Black Redstarts were the avian highlights. Mostly however, it was great to spend time with Kali exploring this verdant corner of Spain and sampling the local specialty cider (although the hangover was strongly reminiscent of that following a teenage house party involving a few too many cans of Strongbow). Below are some of the best shots from the trip.

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This Clouded Yellow posed nicely on a Knapweed flower.
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Kali pretending to enjoy recording cricket videos.
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A study cricket complete with ID tag and lead.
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Marbled White was a new butterfly for me!
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Large Skippers were abundant at the field site.
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This parasitic Hemipteran was predating crickets outside their burrows.
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My best ever views of Zitting Cisticola.
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This male Black Redstart was feeding newly fledged chicks along the beach.

Surprise Serin

After a quiet few weeks at South Walney where birding has very much taken a back seat to my PhD fieldwork, the month of June got off to an exciting start when Gary Clewley and myself stumbled on to a pair of Raven hanging around the central pools early in the afternoon of the first of the month. This was my first reserve tick for a couple of weeks and I assumed that this was a relatively decent record before speaking to Colin from the observatory who informed me they breed close by on Piel Island and turn up fairly regularly. Things really got exciting later that evening however when a routine data entry session was interrupted by a knock on the door from the warden, Sarah Dalrymple, who informed Gary and I that Colin had just found a Serin in the garden. After being given the run around for the best part of half an hour, the bird eventually perched up in a small sycamore allowing me to capture some record phonescoped shots before it dropped down to the ground to feed. The bird was a relatively dull female, with a largely olive/brown mantle with the bright green/yellow colouration restricted to a splodge in the centre of the upper breast. Despite having seen good numbers abroad, this was only my second record of Serin for the UK after a couple of wintering individuals in Essex in February 2015, and was a great record for the island. Hopefully there are further surprises in store this month!

May Magic

As the Lesser Black-backed Gull breeding season in Cumbria has gotten off to a slow start, I decided to spend the weekend just gone at home in Manchester spending time with friends and family and catching up with a few spring migrants in the (not so) local area. After a fantastic evening in my favourite Irish bar watching united inch one step closer to the Europa League final, I woke slightly fuzzy headed on Friday morning after a few too many pints of the black stuff. After slobbing around the house in the morning, I was picked up by Grandma at around 1.30pm and we headed off for a wander round my old patch, Chorlton Water Park, in the spring sunshine. The visit started well with a good May record of a flock of 7 Tufted Duck on the lake, a former breeder which has sadly been decimated in recent years by the local population of feral American Mink. We then headed up to Barlow Tip where numerous common spring warblers were laying claim to their own piece of rough scrub with their uplifting songs. As we walked I heard that familiar, hair-raising scream and looked up to see those sickle-winged souls of summer, my first Swifts of the spring, slicing through the azure sky. I also picked up a couple of House Martins and the whole tip abounded with a riot of Orange Tip butterflies nectaring on spikes of Cuckoo Flowers (Cardamine pratensis) a new plant species for me!

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Female Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardemines).
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Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis).
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Male Orange Tip nectaring on Cuckoo Flower.

As we were walking along I half caught a snatch of a distant rattling song and froze, wondering if this could in fact be a Lesser Whitethroat, a scarce bird in the northwest and a long overdue patch tick. I followed the sound to its likely source and spent ten minutes standing silently in the densely overgrown Snipe field with baited breath, willing the bird to sing again. As the seconds ticked by the suspense slowly fizzled away and I began to wonder if I hadn’t imagined the song. Somewhat dejectedly, we headed back towards the lake and were drawing parallel to the River Mersey when I heard the unmistakeable rattle of a male Lesser Whitethroat emanating from a thick hedge along the river. We quickly hurried round to the other side of the hedge but despite calling again several more times, the bird was true to its skulking nature and never broke the dense cover of the hawthorns. Despite not seeing the bird, I was overjoyed to finally record Lesser Whitethroat, my 94th patch species, at CWP after over 10 years of birding the site. A real bonus from a speculative afternoon walk with my Grandma!

Saturday morning saw me making a ridiculously early start, ending up on the banks of Audenshaw reservoirs in the morning gloom just after 5am. As inland birders everywhere know, northeasterlies and cloud or drizzle in spring can produce a host of waders, terns and other coastal species at large waterbodies. This morning, the banks of Audenshaw had been sprinkled with inland birding gold dust, and in our initial walk down the causeway towards the central vis-migging spot we picked up a summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe, Turnstone, Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpiper and both Ringed and Little Ringed Plover all on reservoir number 3, an astonishing haul and incredible for a site less than four miles from my suburban home. As daylight filtered through the clouds, a host of local birders assembled awaiting the migrants that would surely begin to drop out of the sky. After a quiet half hour stood in the biting wind, Scott and I made an unsuccessful search of the scrub next to the motorway for a singing Lesser Whitethroat which had been present the day before. When we returned to the central causeway, a host of Swifts and hirundines had descended and were hawking low over the banks, generating that anything can happen buzz that birders only feel during peak migration times.

A cursory check of Birdguides revealed that a large number of Grey Plovers were being seen at inland water bodies further south, and in the spirit of preparedness, Scott played the call on his phone before being interrupted by a phone call. When he finished the call a few minutes later, the wailing call of a Grey Plover ran out again and we all instinctively looked at Scott who confirmed that his phone was no longer playing. Once again the trisyllabic call rang out away to the southwest as we all incredulously realised that an actual Grey Plover was heading our way. This led to several moments of frantic scanning before the bird was picked up and gave us a stunning close fly-by in all its dazzling summer glory before continuing northeast towards the Pennines. This was a fantastic record of what is a really difficult Greater Manchester bird and constitutes one of the more surreal birding experiences I’ve ever had. After the excitement of the Grey Plover, things slowed down somewhat however a nice flock of five Arctic Terns which dropped in from the west for a few minutes before continuing on northeast were a nice year tick before we headed off home. The morning’s birding reminded me just how exhilarated inland birding can be and made me wish I’d paid more attention to the site when I was living in Manchester.

On Sunday I made the pilgrimage to Bowland with my parents to pay my respects to the stunning male Pallid Harrier which has set up territory in the Whitendale Valley above Dunsop Bridge. The long walk up the valley in beautiful conditions was extremely pleasant and easier than anticipated and after an hour or so we arrived at the watchpoint below the cairn where a crowd of twenty or so twitchers were assembled. The bird was out of view however I bumped in to Spurn birder Adam Hutt and passed the time catching up with him. As we were chatting I picked up the bird as it flew in from further down the valley before proceeding to quarter the opposite slope giving excellent views. As the name suggests the bird was strikingly pale with gorgeous faint brown barring on the uppertail lacking in male Hen Harrier and a narrow wedge of black in the outer primaries. The flight action was incredibly buoyant with the bird barely flapping as it effortlessly glided over the heather. At one point the bird picked up a large stick and circled up high before skydancing, wheeling back towards the earth much to the enjoyment of the assembled crowd. The bird also perched up on the deck at one point allowing me to capture some awful record phonescoped shots. After watching the bird perform for over half an hour, we headed back down the valley feeling privileged to have witnessed such a unique British birding spectacle.

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Record shot of the male Pallid Harrier.
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The Pallid Harrier twitch.

Later that afternoon I was sitting in my favourite Irish bar enjoying a celebratory guiness and watching united perform dismally against Arsenal when a text off Scott alerted me to the possibility of going for the female Citrine Wagtail at Morfa Madryn on the Conwy that evening. This suggestion was quickly confirmed and I switched to coke as I finished watching united getting thoroughly embarrassed. Scott picked me up outside and after calling home to grab my gear we headed off down the M56. On arrival we eventually managed to locate the viewing mound where another birder told us that the bird had not been seen for over an hour. The bird was showing on a dried up pool and surrounding rough grassland and it quickly became apparent that the bird was going to be tricky to locate. As the sun began to slink toward the horizon over Anglesey I relaxed and enjoyed watching a group of Lapwing chicks, sadly an incredibly rare sight these days, and listening to my first Garden Warbler of the year singing away from the adjacent scrub. For once it was easy for me to adopt a relatively sanguine attitude having seen the species before at nearby Conwy RSPB in August 2013. With every passing minute, the likelihood of a dip increased however Scott’s persistent scanning eventually paid off when he uttered those immortal words “I’ve got it!” He picked the bird up in flight before it dropped onto a pile of rubble where it proceeded to preen for a five minutes in the fading light giving nice scope views. Soon it flew off back into dense vegetation to roost leaving us both grinning at the proverbial twitching victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. The next day an afternoon wander round Chorlton Water Park produced only my third record of Common Sandpiper for the site which I flushed from the north shore. This constituted the cherry on the top of an excellent weekend of birding that perfectly demonstrated the unbridled joys of May migration magic.

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Lapwing chick huddled underneath its parent.
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Record shot of the female Citrine Wagtail.
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A beautiful evening at Morfa Madryn NR.

 

Bank Holiday Birding

After enduring a spell of freezing northerly winds during my first week on Walney, the weather finally relented this weekend as the wind swung round to the east and milder weather took hold. Given the improved prospects for migrants, I made sure to spend some time actively birding over the weekend, however other than a few Willow Warblers in marginal bits of scrub, there wasn’t much in the way of grounded migrants. However I did manage to pick up a few good birds for the island which meant that the weekend wasn’t a complete disappointment. A trip to check the moth trap on Sunday morning produced a stunning female Merlin which gave great views from the car as it hunted along the shoreline. Merlin is a species I see surprisingly infrequently and the incredible views more than made up for a complete lack of moths in the trap. Birding was then put on hold for much of the afternoon as a parental visit had me heading in to Barrow to get some shopping and a bite to eat. We returned to South Walney late afternoon and headed off on a walk to show my parents around the reserve.  We hadn’t even left the car park when my mum drew my attention to a pair of alarm calling Oystercatchers circling high over. Looking up I immediately noticed the object of their displeasure, a stunning Osprey which continued strongly northward in the direction of Barrow! Despite the increased number of breeding pairs in Cumbria, Osprey remains a rare species on Walney with only two records last year so I was very happy to get this species on my reserve list!

On Monday morning a wander round my usual circuit led me to the Bank Hide at Gate Pool where I immediately noticed a Coot, my first for the reserve. I had a feeling this might be a scarce species for the reserve and my suspicions were confirmed correct when I consulted the 2016 report. The Coot population on Walney has undergone a recent rapid decline with only one bird recorded last year, around this time at South Walney. I’ve always found Coot to be a rather underappreciated species and finding an out of place bird was a real thrill, despite their ubiquity in most wetland habitats. The final decent Walney birds of the past few days was a group of at least four Jackdaw foraging around the gull colony on the spit on Tuesday morning. The species is apparently a scarce passage bird at South Walney in the spring with this flock exceeding last year’s May maximum count of just two birds. All in all, the last few days have produced little of real note other than the Osprey, however the thrill of finding scarce local birds is something I’ve enjoyed at various sites over the years and building my South Walney NR list over the next few field seasons is something that I’m eagerly anticipating. As the gulls are steadfastly refusing to lay any eggs, I’ve decided to head home to Stockport for the weekend and may manage to fit in some more exciting birding, including a potential visit to Spurn, in the process.

 

Starting Slow

After spending the first couple of days at South Walney settling in and finding my feet, I decided it was time to get down to some fieldwork and assess the state of the gull colonies on the reserve. Therefore on Wednesday I accompanied Sarah and Pete Jones, the southwestern reserves manager, down to the spit where they were performing maintenance work on the electric fence surrounding the gull colony. The work involved driving the truck around the perimeter of the fence and from the passenger seat I was able to get my bearings and take in the topography of the colony. There were good numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls loafing around within the colony however very few appeared to be showing any signs of nesting behaviour. A brief foray inside the fence, taking extra care not to be shocked by the fence, revealed a number of scrapes likely belonging to Herring Gulls, but a complete dearth of eggs. Herring Gulls, which perform shorter winter movements than Lessers typically nest first and the complete lack of eggs in the colony strongly suggests that both species are late in commencing breeding this year.

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An empty Herring Gull scrape on the spit.

Yesterday I spent some time observing the diminished colony at Gull Meadow and searching for colour-rings. As with the birds on the spit there was little evidence of breeding activity with most birds simply loafing around, however a mating pair provided a hint of things to come. Despite the lethargic nature of the gulls, I had a very successful colour-ring re-sighting session with the combinations from three BTO tagged Herring Gulls and three BTO Lesser Black-backed Gulls recorded. More exciting still were a Herring Gull and a Lesser Black-backed Gull with black colour-rings from the historic colour-ringing project that ended after the 2007 season. Herring Gull “WC8U” was ringed at Walney as a chick on 08/07/2006 and has been seen on several occasions since, including on Walney last summer. Lesser Black-backed Gull “WA6M” was the real highlight of the day however. Ringed as a chick at Walney on 08/07/2005, the bird has been AWOL since with my sighting the first time it has been reported in 12 years! These re-sightings reinforced to me the value of colour-ringing projects for analyses of survival and dispersal – aspects of Lesser Black-backed Gull that I will be investigating further over the course of my PhD.

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Looking for colour-rings at Gull Meadow.
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LBBG “WA6M” – the first time this bird has been seen in 12 years!
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Herring Gull “WC8U” – ringed at Walney as a chick on 08/07/2006

Today, I made a brief foray onto the spit to look for colour-rings however the heat haze and topography of the colony made this near-impossible, with just one BTO tagged Herring Gull for my efforts. Gull meadow was more productive with a couple of new BTO ringed LBBGs noted and both “WA6M” and “WC8U” still hanging around. There was also another LBBG with colour-rings on both legs that was from a different scheme which I will hopefully find out the origins of in due course. As breeding activity is so delayed, my fieldwork activity will mostly consist of ring re-sighting for the foreseeable future however I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent over the last few days watching the gulls and developing a more in depth understanding of their behaviours. I’ve also been birding the reserve every morning but the prevailing northerly winds seem to have prevented any real migration and the sea has been quiet too. With the wind swinging round to the south this morning and set to remain that way for the next few days there’s a good chance of some new birds dropping in over the weekend and I’ll be spending time scouring the areas of cover in an (almost certainly doomed) attempt to turn up something more unusual!

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Heat haze hampering my efforts to read rings on the spit.
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BTO ringed LBBG “7R:W” on Gull Meadow