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!
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.
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.