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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Author: liamsbirding

I'm a 23 year old PhD candidate at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus and a keen birder. Originally from Stockport. All views my own.

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