Last day of winter, first day of spring…

Yesterday I had a university field trip to Wharncliffe Heath. I had a rather drizzly walk round the Chase first, getting a few signs of spring including singing skylark, meadow pipit and reed bunting, and a couple of curlew. Elsewhere in one of the ponds some frogspawn, with a frog‘s head poking out, was another nice sign of the coming months. But it was a dismal day, the rain started to get worse, the fog descended, and the field trip was cut short due to the rather miserable conditions.

Today it was a different situation altogether, with glorious warm sunshine. I didn’t get out much, but managed a yeartick, and the first migrant of the year, from the comfort of my own home, with a singing chiffchaff across the road, which settled in next door’s tree for a while giving good views. Great to see them back!

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An old man out birding…

This weekend I waved goodbye to my twenties and hit the big three-zero. Much of it is, as a result, a bit of a haze, but I did manage a few trips out, and got one lifer for a birthday present!

On Friday, my actual birthday, Laura offered to drive to a bird-based place of my choice, and I decided on Martin Mere WWT, as it’s somewhere I’ve never been before and always wanted to. And of course a nice long-staying American wigeon that had been there for a few days didn’t inform my decision at all!

The wild half of Martin Mere is fantastic, and one of the best places to see wintering whooper swans in Britain, with several hundred wintering there. It’s a bird I always struggle to find round me, and it was great to see so many. There was also one of the biggest skiens of pink-footed geese I’ve ever seen overhead, with several hundred also visible in the fields. Pintail were among the wild ducks on show, posing nicely for pictures, and waders included around 40 avocet, as well as black-tailed godwit, dunlin, redshank and ringed plover.

The Mere

Hundreds of Whoopers!

Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan.

Pintail

Pintail.

After an unsuccessful attempt at the American wigeon before lunch, squinting through the hundreds of Eurasian wigeon dotted around to no avail, we made a second trip and got it straight away, as it handily loitered at the front of a flock.

American Wigeon

Spot the yank!

Afterwards we had a walk through the captive area (having a quick gawp at Wizzy the Beaver on the way). I’m increasingly less of a fan of captive bird collections, but at WWT reserves they generally seem happy and very well cared for, and they’ve done great stuff with captive breeding programmes for birds such as the Hawaiin Goose. And how can you not be charmed by a place where Hawaiin geese and snow geese chase after you in case you have some food for them?

I don’t post pictures of captives much on here, but a couple of exceptions…

Hooded Merganser (captive)
Hooded Merganser.

Ruddy Shelduck (captive)
Ruddy Shelduck.

On Saturday I had a university field trip to Calver Sough looking for signs of mammals (the day after my 30th… great timing!). It was a good trip out, and I got my first ever views of water vole, which were great to see. They were too quick to get any pictures of, so here’s a picture of one of their latrines instead. Don’t say I don’t treat my readers now and again!

Water Vole latrene

Somewhere along my travels I also saw a cracking goshawk overhead, but the usual sensibilities about this species means I can’t really divulge whereabouts. It was the best views I’ve ever got of this species, and a good end to the wildlifey side of the weekend.

The rest of Saturday was taken up with much revelry, and Sunday with recovering from it… Yes I know, I’m getting old…!

Parkgate and Plovers

Earlier in the week I had a trip to the Dee Estuary in Cheshire to visit my friend and former colleague Sean, who is lucky enough to live in that part of the country. Beyond all odds it was a beautiful Spring-like day, and we spent the day travelling up and down the estuary, stopping at various places including West Kirby, Parkgate and Neston along the way.

West Kirby had various waders giving amazing views in some stunning sunshine, giving some good photo ops. Sadly the scaup that had been loitering at the Marine Lake for a few weeks was hiding somewhere.

Two knot, a redshank and a dunlin
Knot, Redshank, Dunlin.

Knot
Knot.

Redshank
Redshank.

Sadly we made a bit of a schoolboy error at arrived at the high tide at Parkgate slightly late, to find hundreds of birders already lining the edges. Some of the highlights included a stunning hen harrier, many little egrets, curlews, redshank, knot, pintail, bar-tailed godwit, shelduck and others. There were also some very obliging stonechats.

Stonechat
Stonechat

Then on to Neston, where we surveyed the estuary with a nice cold pint outside the pub. The best kind of birding!

I didn’t get some of the birds I was hoping for the old yearlist, including short-eared owl and spoonbill, but the day proved that a good day’s birding is about far more than what you can tick of a list… good places, good birds, good weather and good company are all that matters!

Today I had a walk up to Peat Pits to see if I could find any golden plover. The spring-like weather had once again dissipated, and I started out in fog and a snow shower, but it finally lifted enough to spot around 20 plovers in the fields, along with 30 or so lapwing and a couple of stock doves. Elsewhere 4 common gulls were at Walker’s Edge, and it was nice to see a returning curlew. 100 siskin flew into White Lee Moor plantation, and a black grouse gave good views as it circled over Cowell Flat. A buzzard over Low Bradfield while I waited for the bus was a good end to the walk.

The weekend

On Saturday I made a massive purchase at In Focus in Denby Dale, and bought a new scope to replace my now quite knackered Mighty Midget. I am now the proud owner of an Opticron ES80 ED, with a 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and very nice it is too. I took it to Mirfield first of all to have a look for the ring-billed gull that’s doing the rounds at Sands Lane GP, but arrived to discover a) it hadn’t been seen for two hours, and b) I’d left the plate for my new tripod at the shop. D’oh! So after a few moments at Mirfield I was hot footing back to Denby Dale, and spent the rest of the morning at Pugneys.

First of all I had another look at the ring-necked duck which was handily for comparison’s sake in exactly the same place on the nature reserve lake, lurking by the reeds. This time however, instead of seeing a distant duck with greyish sides and a slightly-odd shaped head, I could clearly see  its distinguishing features of its grey flanks with the pure white patch at the front. If it hadn’t been asleep I would have got  good views of its bill pattern too. Then it was a dash across to Calder Wetlands for a nice red-necked grebe, a nice year tick for this time of year.

On Sunday I had a walk on patch, with very few highlights to note except a dipper on the Damflask “steps”, a great spotted woodpecker at the Fisheries, a mute swan and a drake tufted duck at Old Wheel Dam, another tuftie on Olive Dam, and a roving flock of around 40 siskins around Black Lane and Low Matlock Lane.

That evening I went to Buxton to allow my mind  to be bent by Derren Brown, who was playing the Opera House. Before the gig we had a walk around the Pavillion Gardens and I was surprised to see the bird below (sorry for crappy mobile phone shot)…

Canvasback

You can just about make out from this picture that’s it’s not a pochard, due to its pure white back and sides, all-black beak and “Roman” profile, but is in fact a canvasback, a North American species. I knew there was one there early in 2009, that caused a bit of debate that it could be a genuine wild bird and a mega rarity (despite  it bobbing around with the Canadas, Muscovies and yuck ducks of the Pavillion Gardens…), but this was soon put paid to by the fact it was observed to have one clipped wing. I had no idea it was still there – despite its iffy credentials, it’s still a very interesting bird to see, and a good one to get memorised on the off chance you spot a “real” one one day.

On the way home a tawny owl flew over the road at Rivelin, meaning I finally get my first sighting of one for the year, despite hearing them hooting and kee-yicking outside the window on most evenings!

Tomorrow I’m off on an adventure out west… I’ll tell you all about it!