Trip reports

East Yorkshire Group's Trip to Lancashire

Adult whooper swans feeding in fields

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Twenty three members joined the Group's holiday to Lancashire in mid November. This may not seem the best time to be going away but it is the time to see the best numbers of waders and wildfowl on the southern Lancashire coast and reserves. We had a fairly leisurely start and arrived at our first destination, Martin Mere, shortly after 12 noon, giving us about 4 hours of good light before dusk. Or it would have done not had it not been raining! However, the day was brightened when we received a warm welcome from the staff at this Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve and a short briefing about the birds present.

The main feature of the reserve is the wetlands which are overlooked by nearly a dozen hides. The first birds you notice on the pools are the swans, all whooper swans. We saw about 300 of the 1,200 which had been recorded on the reserve. There were no mute swan and the reserve no longer attracts the numbers of Bewick's swans it once did, usually less than a dozen each year. However, the whoopers did not disappoint; their calls resounded across the site throughout the afternoon. With them were shelduck, wigeon, teal, mallard and coot which could be counted by the hundred, and smaller numbers of pochard. Another highlight was the number of pintail. Although we counted only 60, this is an impressive number compared to the odd ones and twos we are used to seeing when out and about on this side of the Pennines.

Although there were a few geese near the hides, most were out in the fields. At first this was a problem for, at the start of the visit, visibility was very poor. However, it did pick up and we saw impressive numbers. One field, which was rich black/brown bare earth, turned to a dull grey as skeins of pink-footed geese arrived from the south west and settled in the fields. Although too far off to make out the more intricate markings and the delicate pink and black beaks, they could be heard from quite a distance as their evocative yapping calls filled the air. Their descent into the fields was spectacular with sudden deep descents marked by violent rolling from side to side. In the end we estimated over 3,000 pink-feet were in the one field; this a tiny fraction of the 21,000 recorded at Martin Mere so far this winter.

At 3pm we returned to the main hide beside the pool for the afternoon feeding session. One of the wardens walked out beside the pool and scattered grain onto the water's edge. As soon as he emerged from beside the hide the birds swarmed forward, the swans dominating the throng. A wheelbarrow full of grain was distributed in minutes and devoured almost as quickly. While the ducks, especially the mallard and shelduck, were not slow to come forward and take their share, the swans spent as much time fighting with each other as feeding. One of the wardens indicated that the reserve spends about £50,000 each winter feeding the wildfowl. Elsewhere on the reserve carrots and potatoes have been dumped in order to prevent the wildfowl straying onto neighbouring land and damaging crops. This year, for the first time I can recall, this was on a remote part of the reserve rather than in front of the heated hide.

Although there were a couple of hundred lapwings on the reserve, other waders were scare with only snipe and ruff being seen. Given the poor weather it was not going to be a great day for birds of prey, but the local buzzards again put in an appearance, often perching on distant fence posts as did a kestrel and a merlin. We also saw two marsh harriers. We stayed until nightfall in the expectation, unfulfilled, of a spectacular pre dusk arrival of roosting birds. It was then a short drive into Southport and our hotel.

Friday was to be another long coach journey, this time up the M6 to Leighton Moss, one of the RSPB's top reserves. The weather forecast was not great, but we travelled in anticipation of a good day. After a quick chat with the reserve staff it was clear that a walk to the causeway and the northern half of the reserve would be best as this was where the bearded tits and bitterns were being seen most often. Sadly neither of these was to perform for us. From the causeway we heard the occasional call which, drowned out by robin and wren calls, might have been the pinging of the beardies. No one managed to successfully turn a clump of reeds into a bittern. My best views of bittern at Leighton Moss were in the November of 2003 when a harsh frost had frozen the water at the edge of the reed beds and I saw three.

Although we achieved a good list of wildfowl, the numbers were not as good as at Martin Mere, with most counts between 50 and 100 individuals. The most interesting bird was a single, male goosander which was feeding in the shallows, repeatedly swimming though a raft of coot and mallard with its head below the water. What we did get however, was a wider range of birds, including many more small birds. This was partly due to the better weather but also due to the more varied habitats at Leighton Moss. With more tree cover we got woodland specialists such as nuthatch and treecreeper as well as a range of tit species including a marsh tit on a feeder near the centre. These feeders, and a feeding station near the walkways, proved very popular with goldfinch and nuthatch joining the obligatory chaffinches and house sparrows. From one of the footpaths we enjoyed prolonged views of a male bullfinch eating the succulent rich red berries of a guelder rose.

In the afternoon we stayed closer to the information centre, walking the paths to the hides on the southern half of the reserve. Here we saw our first little egret while most of us missed the flash of blue which was an, as always, speeding kingfisher. Regrettably it declined to perch nearby. However, what did appear to the left of the hide, at first hidden in the deep, tall reeds, were a stag and three hind red deer. The stag sported an impressive set of antlers although the group never made it fully into the open. I think they were wary of the noise from the hide. As dusk fell and we moved to Lillian's Hide, the one nearest the centre, we began to notice small flocks of starlings, of 10 to 20 birds, flying in from the north west and heading towards the heart of the reed bed. After a while the incoming flocks became larger, possibly a couple of hundred birds at a time. Over the space of about half an hour a few such flocks had passed. Eventually we became aware that, in the far distance, a flock of a few thousand starlings was rising and falling, twisting and turning, all coming in to roost. A few times we lost the entire flock, either as they dipped below the reeds or flew against a dark background, but as time progressed they appeared to be moving ever closer to the heart of the reed bed. Although we did not see the final descent, we are sure they roosted in the reeds, as has happened at Leighton Moss on a regular basis. More to the point, a pair of sparrowhawks were also sure they were roosting in the reeds as three times the female, later joined by the male, dashed in front of the hide.

Saturday was to be Stay in Southport Day. Although the town is a major tourist resort (by Lancastrian standards anyway) it is surrounded by excellent wildlife habitat. Chief amongst these is the RSPB's Marshside reserve on the north western edge of town. With high tide due at about noon we spent the morning watching Marshside. Bisected by one of the main roads leading into Southport the northern half of the reserve is grazed fields, the southern is shallow permanently flooded fields. There was again a good selection of wildfowl with, as before, wigeon, teal, mallard and pintail prominent. Given the shallow water it was no surprise that diving ducks were scarce. The number of wader species was again low but the number of individuals high. As expected there were good numbers of golden plover and lapwing and a few curlew and redshank. The star wader however was the black-tailed godwit. The reserve holds about 2,000 and we must have seen about half of them. They are a spectacular sight when they rise and drift over the mud in unison, broad white wing bars flashing in the poor light.

Although the godwits were perhaps the most spectacular birds, the prize individual was a purple coloured curlew like bird feeding between the cattle on the grazed fields. It was to be a prize for everyone, a lifer for some, a year tick for all, including Jack Thornton and Trevor Malkin, who are strongly tipped to be the top two in the year's listing competition. The bird in question seems a little out of place in the UK, never mind a marsh in Lancashire, but it was amongst little egrets and had a few days earlier been accompanied by a cattle egret. What was it? A spectacular, if distant and sometimes elusive, glossy ibis.

We had already spent some time scanning the saltmarsh and estuary, with views of Lytham St Anne's and Blackpool in the background, before high tide. It was during this earlier spell that George Berry got onto a distant bird, pale grey with black wing tips and a white rump. This was not a gull but an adult hen harrier. Unfortunately it was always distant. As the rising tide brought birds closer to the shore we saw yet more pintail and a few hundred shelduck. An obliging peregrine falcon perched for ages on a post, while our first few skylarks were flushed from the marsh. Also in the marsh, although you often had to look hard to see them, were pink-footed geese. At breakfast on both mornings so far, we had seen skeins of geese heading in a roughly south easterly direction over the hotel. Here we could see several hundred feeding in the weeds between the road and the mudflats.

After lunch at Marshside we heeded some local advice and stopped briefly at a car park to the south of Southport were we were told twite and snow buntings had been seen. Although we flushed half a dozen small birds which could have been either twite or linnet we were unable to relocate them or find the buntings. In the few minutes we were there however, we did add oystercatcher, dunlin, turnstone and bar-tailed godwit to the wader list.

Our final destination for the day was the National Trust property at Formby Point. It is pine woodland on sand dunes and home to a colony of red squirrels. This was to be our only real disappointment of the weekend. The woods were dominated by crows and magpies to the almost total exclusion of other birds. At one point we heard a shrill chip call as two fat finch sized birds flew above the tree tops. Although we did not see them again, the consensus of opinion was that they were crossbills. At the time we were loitering, hoping the squirrels would emerge, but it was to be bad news; we saw none. Nearly 80 red squirrels have succumbed to a virus in the last year and they are now scarce at Formby. A little sea watching from the dunes above the beach produced four common scoter and a few sanderling and grey plover. Deciding to cut our losses as the light failed, we returned to Marshside in time to see a spectacular pre roost flight of hundreds if not thousands of pink-footed geese, set against a reddening sky.

Our last day was spent at Mere Sands Wood, a Lancashire Wildlife Trust reserve about half an hour's drive from Southport. The reserve is a series of lakes set in mature woodland and surrounded by farmland. At the information centre the feeders were, as elsewhere, attracting tree sparrows, chaffinches and tits, while cleaning up on the ground below were moorhen. Once in the wood we quickly found all the common woodland birds with nuthatches seen at a number of points along the walk and the occasional treecreeper and great spotted woodpecker. A chance glance across a stubble field revealed two little bumps which turned out to be the heads of grey partridges. When we later passed this news on to the warden he was quite excited. Although they get good numbers of red-legged partridges near the reserve, greys are quite rare.

At the first pool we added most of the common wildfowl to the day's list although, for the first time the commonest duck, with about 70 in one flock, was the tufted duck. We also saw our only great crested grebes and only our second little grebe. Continuing along the woodland paths, we had brief glimpses of a sparrowhawk before three low flying whooper swans drew our attention to the fields beyond the wood. Here the occasional family party could be seen flying between fields. In the far distance we could see Martin Mere.

Again following local advice, we spent quite a lot of time, otherwise known as a refreshment stop, scanning distant farm buildings for little owl. However, we were looking at the wrong buildings, as we found out about half an hour later when persistent searching revealed one on a very distant half derelict hen hut. The shallower pools off the western half of the reserve again produced lots of teal, mostly hidden behind the braches of the overhanging trees and a flock of pochard, which at nine, was hardly spectacular. Following lunch at the information centre, we headed home, most people having been dropped off by 6pm.

If you feel I have not mentioned the hotel yet and are beginning to think I have nothing good to say, far from it. The staff and management at the Cambridge House Hotel made us extremely welcome throughout. The manageress made a point of searching out the vegetarians in the group and effectively said that, if they were not happy with the vegetarian courses on offer, they would cook whatever we requested. On Saturday the breakfast team came in early to ensure we got a full day out in the field. The rooms were beautifully furnished and comfortable throughout. The food was excellent. Testament to everyone's feelings was the fact that the collection for the staff, presented on our last morning, exceeded £100. If... sorry... when we return to southern Lancashire we will be staying there again.

This has, however, left me with a problem. The quality of the hotel was so high that it has set a standard I will find difficult to match, never mind better, on future holidays! However, I am hopeful that the hotel for next year's trip will be good. And what is next year's trip? We are going to Northumberland for three nights in late October with the aim of getting one day on Lindisfarne. Full details and a booking slip are in the programme.

David Woodmansey