Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Stuck at home

I was driving down to Worthing to attend a client meeting on Tuesday and was in bunching traffic southbound on the M40 when a 4x4 rear-ended me doing between 50-60 mph. So today I’m stuck at home, with my car away to have a new back-end fitted and with whiplash and muscle spasms in my back. Not best pleased. It has however given me a chance to watch the comings and goings in the back garden though, and I'm pleased to say there's still plenty going on.

As spring approaches most of the birds in the garden have fresh plumage and are showing mating and nesting behaviours. Sparrows are actively nesting now in both mine a neighbours roof, the Dunnocks have paired off and are now inseparable too.

The Blackbirds have gone from being very occasional visitors to the garden to showing up 3 or 4 at a time, with lots of chases and alarm calling which is setting the other birds to flight. This pair of males paused briefly on top of Shed number 1:

You can click on the pic for a more detailed version. We still have Bramblings visiting regularly, including three yesterday, they will migrate soon to breed although they can stay in the UK as late as May apparently. This is a female Brambling, note the head and wing markings:

And this a male Brambling, which helps with identifying the birds you may see:

Finally this male Reed Bunting is showing his fresh plumage well including the black bib. You can spot him in a tree even when the light is bad, his tail flickers regularly and is a real give away!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Salcey Forest

Monday morning - it's raining in Southport and we've long wanted to do a walk in Salcey Forest, close to home, on a weekday, but we had to check out Marshside one last time before heading home. We did - it was cold, windy and very similar to Saturday so we lasted there about 20 minutes before decided to join the queues on the M6 south. After another three hours we pulled into the car park at Salcey Forest. The cafe has it figured! There's a number of nut feeders (including a new feeding station) which attract a number of woodland birds. Today it was mainly Blue Tits, Chaffinches and Great Tits, although there was one brave Willow Tit amongst them:

So we had a very distracted lunch watching all the comings and goings of the birds. After a while this Coal Tit showed up too (note the distinctive stripe on the back of the head):

Officially the Woodpecker trail is a 6 mile path around Salcey but we reckon they lie to lure in the unwary or optimistic, it's got to be 7 - 8 miles. Part way around we spotted this Coal Tit, that looks so scruffy we reckon he's in moult into spring/breeding plumage:

But it was good to be so close up. In the same area, this Wren was rummaging through the undergrowth, which allowed this close-up:

South of the road (that runs through Salcey, if you start in the main car park) is by far the better birding, as there are fewer humans around to disturb the birds. Some scum had fly-tipped the remains of a bathroom fitting in the second car park, I hope they're caught and have to clear it up with a toothbrush! All in all we saw at least six Treecreepers, this being the best snap:

They are hard to photograph being both fast moving and jumping in and out of shade at pace, so nothing particularly crisp despite a lot of effort. Further along, while my wife was watching a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker (her first, i've not yet seen one so I'm jealous!), I snapped this Willow Tit as it took off from a branch in front of me - a particularly pleasing shot:

(Go on: click on the the picture for a closer look!). We'd seen and heard a number of Nuthatches throughout the afternoon, this was the best snap I managed:

Salcey is one of my favourite spots in Northamptonshire. It gets very busy at weekends, but during the week it's almost deserted. I'll have to set some time aside next year...

Gayton sands RSPB

On Sunday the primary focus was retail therapy at Cheshire Oaks. From here we headed down to Gayton Sands ( another big RSPB estuary reserve. The tide was quite a way out but luckily there was room in the Boatman Inn (not cheap but very good quality) for 2 for lunch, the IPA was awesome!

Feeling both heavier and lighter we walked along the perimeter of the reserve as long as the path would allow and then headed back along the Wirral Way, back to the pub. We then trekeed in the other direction although this was alongside the main road and less pleasant. There were a large number of Little Egrets around, including this one which flew past, quite close by:

As we headed back to the pub car park before heading back to our hotel, this Mistle Thrush was showing very clearly, despite the appalling light:

The song of a Mistle Thrush is very similar to the Blackbird, using the same 'voice' but the alarm call is much more distinctive. The RSPB were hosting a raptor watch on the Estuary that evening, we hung around for a short while, long enough to see a Little Owl emerge from it's nest a couple of times, but the Hen Harriers had moved on in February it appeared... so time to head back to the hotel.

Formby Point

We had an exquisite (but very late) lunch at a garden centre cafe north of Southport before determining our last destination for the Saturday. We settled on Formby as the big atlas showed some bird symbols and we were out of ideas and very tired! As we got close to Formby we saw signs for a National Trust attraction at 'Formby Point' ( which we decided to follow. It turns out that Formby Point is one of the last strongholds of the Red Squirrel in the UK. By now the clouds were gathering (as predicted) so the light was falling away and the wind picking up. We walked to the headland, being sandblasted the whole way but frankly the beaches in Norfolk and Cornwall are much more attractive!

We decided to head back into the wood and search out some Red Squirrels. We saw a group of adults and youngsters clustered around some logs. The kids, in their enthusiasm, were throwing nuts at the squirrels, which meant the squirrels were having to take evasive action to avoid being pelted, which was an interesting outcome of the NT selling 'squirrel nuts' (as were the number of magpies and crows) :)

I watched one Red Squirrel take cover up a tree which we were watching. I lost it in the canopy but tried to pick it up for a good ten minutes or so. Meanwhile my wife had seen it run down the other side, sit at the base of the trunk and then potter off at a gentle pace much to her amusement!

We headed deeper into the wood to try and locate some less bruised squirrels. We stopped in a spot where we could hear a lot of very thin high-pitched calls, which turned out to be a flock of Goldcrests. Having only seen individuals before this 'flocking' behaviour was a surprise. They behaved remarkably similarly to Long-tailed Tits in fact. This Goldcrest is shown in profile:

whereas this one is showing very clearly the headstripe:

Both pictures were taken in heavy gloom and in woodland so the focus isn't sharp (sorry!). There are clearly quite a lot of Red Squirrels at Formby point and finally I managed a decent snap of one, eating some of the recently thrown food:


From Mere Sands we drove to Marshside, an RSPB reserve, just north of Southport ( The reserve is a significant expanse of wetlands, with a road running through the middle. Also along the coast road and on the other side is the vast Ribble Estuary (English Nature). We decided to walk around the larger of the two reserve areas. There were plenty of birds around including a huge flock of Golden Plover, though they remainded in the middle of the reserve and therefore out of range of my camera. As we headed around the perimeter there was one Teal Drake that seemed unpreturbed by our presence:

Beautiful plumage. Halfway around (an increasingly longer looking walk!) this Black-tailed Godwit was showing very well from the public path. still in winter plumage:

I estimate we saw 50 Black-tailed Godwits but hundreds of Teals, Wigeon and Golden Plover. You can see on this snap the Black-tailed Godwit to the rear of this pair is starting to moult into breeding plumage, showing a darker/orange head, neck and chest:

Further along the path we came close to a Curlew, foraging:

I'm delighted with my new camera, the quality of the images tends to be significantly improved as the above snaps illustrate!

Mere Sands

From Martin Mere we headed on to Mere Sands (, which is a very dense cluster of habitats, mostly frequented by dog walkers (but with an excellent visitor centre, passionate staff and lots to offer), well worth a visit, though overshadowed by the more famous WWT site down the road...

From one hide we got excellent views of a small flock of Long-tailed Tits (now known to us as 'badger birds' due to their distinctive colours - and my wife's personal favourites due to their gregarious nature and curiosity), including this individual:

Hint: Click-on a piccie for a better view...

As the reserve is so small we decided to do a figure-of-eight walk around the two main lagoons. On the outward leg of the second loop we spotted this Song Thrush foraging in the wood:

Further along the same path this Jay came into view:

Seeing the Jay reminded me just how infrequently I see this 'common' bird. Again a recommended location. By now it was around noon on the Saturday!

Martin Mere - Swans at dawn

We needed a break and so booked off the first day's holiday of the year and decided to make a long weekend of it by heading up to Lancashire for some walking and birding. Stupidly we also booked tickets for the dawn Swan Flight via the WWT (, which meant a 5am alarm and a prompt arrival at Martin Mere for a 6am start. The sat nav took us down a farm track which was fenced off halfway along - hilarious at 0540 :)

Anyway we were there with 5 minutes to spare although we'd forgotten the tickets - luckily the warden was humane and was checking names instead! As we waited for the final couple to arrive my wife noticed a large flock of Geese taking off in the half-light of dawn, which is part of what we'd come to see. I was now getting really annoyed!!

Finally we entered the reserve and went on to the main hide. Hey presto almost nothing to see. The geese had indeed flown and there were few Whooper Swans about. We decided to go walkabout and headed up to the United Utilities hide, from which we could see the majority of the reserve's Whoopers and saw a Marsh Harrier settling. After about 20 minutes of watching the swans, and the lapwings and feeling guilty we headed back to join the group at the main hide. By this time the swans were headed across, in anticipation of their 0830 feed. Here's a small group headed in:

As the number of Whooper Swans increased they started to either fight or display in couples or groups and to gather in front of the hide:

As well as the swans there were by now a few geese, some mallards and quite a few Pintail Ducks, including this pair:

The warden decided to bring forward the feeding as the humans were getting cold and it was only 0730 - an hour ahead of the main feeding schedule. As the swans fed, gradually the other birds plucked up the courage to mingle in, including the ducks, Shelduck and the geese. As I was snapping away one particular goose, now christened 'Evil Goose' took a particular dislike to me and stared and hissed for a good ten minutes regardless of what else was going on around, this is Evil Goose (Pink-footed Goose):

Once the feeding was completed it was time to head back into the reserve building for a cooked breakfast and tea. The morning proved well worth the £12 entrance fee and I'd recommend it to anyone who can face a 5am alarm!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lousy weather

As forecast Sunday is all rain and wind, so not worth venturing out. However not everything has it that easy... this Goldfinch is feeling the full effect of the weather:

Also we had another Brambling visitation today, just a single female but still a pleasure to have in the garden:

She's just plucking up the courage to dive down on to the scattered seed!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Spot the difference!!

A new camera - Canon 400d with an Image Stabilised 100-400 lens (thanks to Richard Bedford for the top advice!). I HAD to take a photo to test the camera, this is one of the many House Sparrows, sat in the apple tree:

Then Staurday came with forceast heavy showers but we decided to head out anyway, to Foxton Locks in Leicestershire. It's the very first weekend in March and yet there's nesting or related activity everywhere you look. This Dunnock was singing alongside the canal path:

Away from the canal, in the fields, there were Skylarks and Meadow Pipits in song flight, this Skylark took off close to us:

Further on we spotted a flock of Redwings, which were nervous so kept their distance:

Over a copse of trees we spotted this Common Buzzard, seen here in straight ahead flight and then soaring:

Around the village of Laughton there were hundreds of Starlings:

We got a hard stare from this Great Tit:

Towards the end of the 8 mile walk on saturated ground, which was hard going, I managed to snap this Mistle Thrush:

All in all a very promising start, though nothing of note about, when we do see some less common birds I should be able to get some decent shots now!