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Hugh’s News

Hugh’s News – May 2018

So finally we had some warm and sunny weather over the bank holiday weekend! Even if it did not last for long, it put a smile on everyone’s face for a few days at least. This winter seems to have been never-ending, and the cold and wet weather has certainly had an effect on our local birds.  Migrants that come to the Wirral to breed over the summer have been really slow returning from their wintering grounds in southern Europe or Africa.

While I have seen House Martins and Swallows now, I have still to spot a Swift – although some have been reported locally.  All these species rely on insects for food, so bad weather severely limits their ability to find prey items.  All is not lost however, provided we have a settled period soon.  Many other species, primarily the resident birds, are well into the breeding season though.  Blackbirds and Robins have been active in my garden, and Goldfinches have been feasting on sunflower hearts in good numbers.  At Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB reserve, young Lapwings, Canada Geese and a single Tawny Owl have all been spotted.

Wirral was graced with a rarity recently, with an Iberian Chiffchaff present at Thurstaston for a few days.  As the name indicates, this species breeds in Spain and Portugal, but clearly over-shot its normal range.  It is very difficult to tell the difference visually from the more familiar Chiffchaff, but luckily it has a distinctive call.  You will have to come to the AGM to hear it!

Unfortunately the canal trip planned for Thursday this week had to be cancelled at the last minute because of a problem with the boat.  Obviously disappointing news but there is always next year!

I am looking forward to next week’s field meeting to Moelydd – a new location for me.  By then all the summer migrants will surely have returned and we will see some good birds!  Hope to see you there.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – March 2018

I had heard that a flock of 5 Scaup had taken up temporary residence on West Kirby Marine Lake, so on Monday morning I popped along to see if they were still there. Now these are birds that are normally seen off the coast on Wirral in the winter, about a mile away, bobbing up and down in the waves and so difficult to see well. They breed in Iceland, Scandinavia and into northern Russia.  Occasionally, especially after stormy weather, one or two birds may take refuge on a lake or reservoir.  Some of you may remember we saw a male bird on a field meeting to Colemere in January 2017, but while the views were good they were still a little distant.

On the Marine Lake however, and in stark contrast to the Jack Snipe at Burton Mere Wetlands on Sunday, the Scaup were right by the railings at the North end busily diving to feed.  There were 3 males and 2 females.  The close views allowed a great opportunity to study the beautiful plumages of both sexes, and the diagnostic elongated head shape with no hind crest that helps distinguish them from the closely related Tufted Duck.

There were also a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers further out towards the middle of the lake, and the usual mix of waders roosting on the rocks as the tide came in. These were mostly Redshank, with smaller numbers of Turnstone and Dunlin, and a single Knot.

By now, my fingers were getting cold so I returned to the car!  I do not know how long these birds will stay before returning to the sea, but I recommend having a look for them if you can.

The cold weather has also brought in more Redwing and Fieldfare, and many of you have told me that you have had them in your gardens, along with wintering Blackcap. Sadly, the extreme low temperatures and snow will undoubtedly cause fatalities to many birds, despite our efforts to feed them and provide fresh water. Small birds are especially susceptible to the cold because they have a greater surface area to volume ratio and so lose heat more quickly.  Some species combat this by huddling together on branches or in holes. 63 Wrens were once found roosting together in one box!  Provided this winter is an exception rather than the new norm, the populations should hopefully recover over the next year or two.

As I write, the weather is getting a little milder so Spring is maybe not so far away, and birds can start their breeding season in earnest.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – January 2018

I have to confess that I have not done a lot of birding since the start of the year! I seem to be turning into a bit of a fair-weather wuss, which meant I missed a famed Wirral birding event.  The beginning of January saw some strong winds coinciding with high tides and the water came right in to the wall at Parkgate and elsewhere on the river.

The result, so I heard, was a birding extravaganza, with great views of harriers, short-eared owls and other raptors. Water Rails were flushed off the marsh and small rodents such as voles and mice swam for their lives!  An occasion like this is arguably one of the most sensational natural world sights in the UK.  Did any members make it to Parkgate or elsewhere for the high tide?  If so, let us know how you faired.

With the weather remaining inclement, it should have increased the numbers of birds and different species seen on the Big Garden Birdwatch. I hope many of you joined in and enjoyed the annual bird watch from the comfort of your armchair.  Now that is my idea of birding!

Canal Trip

I am planning another day trip with the Wirral Community Narrowboat Trust on Thursday 10th May. The boat will take us from the Cheshire Cat at Christleton, at around 9.15am, along the Shropshire Union Canal to Wharton’s Lock and Beeston, where we stop for lunch, before returning to Christleton about 4:30pm.

The boat has a toilet, and free tea/coffee is provided, so you only need to bring your lunch and binoculars! The cost will be around £13 – £14.  Priority will be given to members who have not been on a trip before or not for some time; then it is first come – first served!

Please email me to book or for more details.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – December 2017

The snow and sleet that many of us experienced over the last week or two was confirmation, if it were needed, that winter has truly arrived. With the harsher conditions, birds are visiting the feeders in larger numbers, and they may become reliant on these food supplies.  It is great to feed the birds in your garden, but be careful about suddenly stopping as this may put them at risk of starvation, if alternatives are not readily available.

Blackcaps, almost certainly from the continent, have been reported in gardens already, with our own breeding birds departing for southern Europe. Short-eared Owls and both Hen and Marsh Harriers are still being spotted regularly from locations such as the Harp Inn, Parkgate or Denhall Lane.  Blackbirds and other thrushes hunt out berries and fallen apples.

A reminder that the 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch is coming soon, from 27-29 January (or as near as possible to these dates). Here are a few tips to help you:

1. Be prepared – fill your feeders and refresh the drinking water.

2. Start early – the early bird really does catch the worm!

3. Get comfy with pen and paper, drink, snack at hand.

4. Use the RSPB website to report your findings; or use the form in Nature’s Home.

5. Share the experience, and get your friends interested.

This will be final Hugh’s News of the year so, on behalf of the Committee, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I thought I had to end with a seasonal Robin photo – sorry it was not in the snow!!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – November 2017

On a recent short holiday in North Norfolk, it occurred to me how the distributions of several familiar birds have changed over just the last couple of decades. Species that one had to travel away from Wirral to see, to more southerly or easterly counties, are now regularly seen on the Dee Marshes.

When I moved to Wirral 27 years ago, a Little Egret was still a national rarity, certainly away from the south coast, and I remember visiting Parkgate to “twitch” one. Now they are so familiar we almost take them for granted!  They have been joined in the last few years by both Cattle and Great White Egrets, the former breeding for the first time this summer.  Avocets and Cetti’s Warblers are now regular breeders.

There has been a regular Hen Harrier roost at Parkgate for some time, but we are now also graced by Marsh Harriers year-round.

Sadly there are some negative trends too. I saw several Grey Partridge around Holkham Gap, a species that is increasingly rare on Wirral.

But there are still more potential settlers. Red Kites have colonised Norfolk, and Bearded Tit and Bittern are regular species there.  All three of these species have been seen periodically on Wirral, so how long before these birds are resident?

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – September 2017

“It’s an ill wind” as the saying goes. Well the strong winds and heavy rain last week brought some good birds to our shores – if you were prepared to brave the blowy conditions!  There were many sightings of Leach’s Petrel and Grey Phalarope from various points along the North Wirral coast from New Brighton to Hoylake and Hilbre.

There was a supporting cast of the occasional Sabines Gull, Manx Shearwater, Black Tern and Little Gull. There was also a Red-necked Phalarope at Frodsham!  I did not manage any photos of these rarer species, but numbers of our more familiar waders are building up now for the winter and I did see a group of Turnstones bathing on the rocks at West Kirby Marine Lake.  The first ring-tail Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owls have been seen on the salt marsh. Hopefully there will be enough voles to keep these magnificent birds here over the winter.

As we pass into autumn, most birds have finished breeding now although you may find the odd juveniles from the late brood like this Moorhen preening itself in the sunshine at Burton Mere Wetlands. On calmer days, family groups of Buzzards can often be seen circling in the thermals, “meewing” to each other. Of note, I saw a young Wood Pigeon in my garden with what appears to be a mite or growth on its face.  Can anyone identify it? No prizes, but I would be interested in any suggestions.

Wirral Community Narrowboat Trust is very proud and honoured to have been awarded the Queen’s Award For Voluntary Service in June 2017. This Award is considered to be the MBE of volunteering.  The Award was announced on 2nd June 2017, and two representatives of the Trust were invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of the achievement.  Our Club has been a regular supporter of the Trust through our Canal Trips, and I have passed on our congratulations to the Trust.  I am already thinking about planning another trip next May!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – July 2017

I hope you are enjoying the summer! The weather has been typically variable but I think not too bad overall. I always say to myself “It could have been worse”!

On the birding scene, July is often thought of as a quiet month. The breeding season has largely finished so bird song and displays diminish, and many birds undergo a moult that can make then more indistinct and elusive. So now is a good time to look at other areas of the natural world such as butterflies and dragonflies.

I am including a few photos from a recent guided walk I attended at Whixall Moss. The weather was not ideal, being a bit cool and windy, but we still saw some nice subjects: Comma butterfly, a Heart and Dart moth and lots of 5 Spot Burnets.

At BMW, the single Cattle Egret chick is still around the nest testing its wings and should fledge any day now. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls has 2 fledged young. For both species, it is the first breeding record for the reserve.

OK, I have talked about the summer. So I don’t want to be too pessimistic but the first signs of autumn migration are already present – and the longest day was only a couple of weeks ago! But there have been sightings of waders such as Common Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Ruff at Burton Mere Wetlands this last week, the first birds returning south from their breeding grounds.

These initial migrants are usually failed or non-breeders, with the peak period still to come. They are often still in (partial) breeding plumage though, so can look bright and quite different to their winter garb that we are more familiar with. This may cause some confusion initially, but it demonstrates for example why the full name for the familiar winter species here on Wirral is Red Knot.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – April 2017

After the mild winter, spring migration seemed to start early. However, the lack of a settled spell of weather has meant that birds have only been coming through in dribs and drabs.

Wheatears have been fairly numerous, but birds such as Ring Ouzel, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart and Whinchat have been harder to find. I did find single Willow Warbler and Whitethroat, and heard a lone Reed Warbler at Leasowe on Friday.

Several White Wagtails were in a ploughed field beside Banks Road. There is still time for more passage birds however, given some favourable conditions. I also saw my first Swift of the year by Shotton Fields, one of my favourite birds of every summer.

At Burton Mere Wetlands meanwhile, the first Lapwing brood has already fledged (which is early), and the Avocets have started laying. The reed beds and woods are starting to fill with warblers, even though the wind can make hearing or seeing them difficult. The Little Egrets are active in Marsh Covert, and the Bluebells are also at their best now.

Finally, a reminder to start collecting your photos to show at the AGM on 25th May. If you do not want to present them yourself, I would be happy to do it on your behalf. Just load them on a memory stick and bring it along.

This has become a successful and integral part of the evening so please help contribute. See you there!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – March 2017

I have just returned from a holiday in Costa Rica, and I know one or two members have also been there recently.

I am pretty sure they would agree with me that it is a beautiful country with magnificent scenery and wonderful wildlife.

What was particularly encouraging was how much the local people value their rich environment and the steps they take to maintain and preserve the national parks in particular.

I hope to give a talk on the country in the next programme but here are a few ‘tasters’.

Meantime, here on Wirral there are clear signs that spring has arrived. The first Avocets were at BMW in mid February.

This last week there have been reports of Wheatear, Sand Martin, House Martin and Ring Ouzel locally.

We will be looking out for more migrants during our next field meeting at Leasowe.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – February 2017

It promised to be a nice Winter’s day so I travelled to Red Rocks in search of the Snow Bunting that had been reported over the previous day or two. I didn’t have to look for long as the bird was close to the slipway and feeding on the beach and amongst the rocks.

Photographers had scattered some seed for it, and it was very obliging for the few people gathered to watch it. It was probably so full it could not fly far even if it wanted to!

After admiring the beauty of the plumage and taking a few photos I moved on West Kirby Marine Lake. The air was still and the water was so calm, that there were beautiful reflections in the mirror-like surface. Although the air temperature was only around 5 degrees, with a bright sun and no wind-chill it felt more like a Spring day. A little flock of assorted waders was sitting on the rocks, basking in the warm sunlight.

Further out on the lake were several Red-breasted Mergansers, both male and female, and a couple of drake Goldeneye. They were all diving frequently to feed and they kept reappearing in a different place, making taking photographs difficult! Black-headed Gulls loafed on the pontoon as they often do here. I could not locate the female Goosander that had been reported here though.

Having completed a full circuit of the lake, I then moved on to Thurstaston Country Park and sat down in the visitors centre to scan the feeding station. It was not as busy as it might have been on a colder day, but several male House Sparrows looked smart in their breeding plumage.

Two Collared Doves were showing signs of displaying and paring off. A pair of stunning Bullfinches turned up, but were always very wary and quickly flew back into the trees. Even a drake Mallard on the pond look magnificent. If you saw this bird in an exotic Asian country you would drool over it, but I think we often take them too much for granted!

The following day the weather changed back to the normal grey, windy conditions, so it was nice to have been out on such a pleasant day. Spring is not quite here yet and there is still time for a sting in the tail, but it was a taste of things to come.

Last night I went to the evening with Iolo Williams at Neston Cricket Club in Parkgate. It was nice to see several Club members there too. Iolo regaled us with a brilliant talk on Raptors that was entertaining, informative, and hilarious in equal measures. I don’t think anyone went away disappointed. No pressure for my talk to the Club in June then!

Hugh Stewart