Gowy Meadows in January 2018

A new year is here! Our guest blogger Gowy D'Amus reports the sightings for January at Gowy Meadows.

1st January

Initially bright and sunny then rain in from the west. c.3kms

Something of an unexpected trip out to-day brought on by a project of Marion’s’, namely to attempt to photograph a different species of plant (flowering or otherwise) for each day of the year. As it turned out we managed to record eight species – which was around eight more than I’d anticipated us seeing!

On the birding front we kicked things off at the ponds in SJ4575 – the first time I’d been on the site for so long that I was surprised to see just how far the reed-bed had encroached into the pond itself. Some good news was discovering the clear demise of the motor biking circuit so I may be back more regularly from now as hopefully the disturbance levels will regenerate birds’ interest in the place. Six Teal stole the wildfowl show but it was a nice party of ten Long-tailed Tits that were the most interesting of all. Having recorded 20 species we moved on to Stoak church and walked a short circuit to the canal and back through the tiny Stoak Nature Park as the rain was getting too heavy to continue.

Little egret c. Steve Holmes

Little egret c. Steve Holmes

There was very little other than a nice flock of 100 Redwings, some 50 Lapwings and four distant Little Egrets strutting their stuff on the flooded fields west of the Gowy, which itself was markedly up in level again. Twenty-eight species on day one – the usual depressing statistic being that 28 represents about a quarter of all birds I’ll be seeing on the local patch over the coming 364 days!

3rd January

Bracing! Moderately high north-westerly winds with showers and some sunny spells. c.10kms

I’d only one thing on my mind for today, to see just what the river was up to. Over recent days it has been up and down like the proverbial yo-yo and since it had been tempestuous overnight the chances of it being up again were real. 

A very nice, large female Sparrowhawk began the day off in fine style before one of the birds of the day turned up in the flock of Chaffinches wintering across the road from the entrance to Speckled Wood Lane. In fact there were four BRAMBLING in total and for the first time all winter the finch flock wasn’t feeding on the far side of the field. Most of the 200 birds present were perched up on a much closer hedgerow so picking out the odds and ends was much easier. Apart from the Brambling there were nine Greenfinches and the odd Goldfinch. With some sunshine poking through I managed to make a few poor record shots of the Brambling (on the right in the photo below) and couldn’t recall the last time I’d photographed the species – for certain it was many years ago!

Chaffinch and brambling c. Steve Holmes

Chaffinch and brambling c. Steve Holmes

The Little Owl might have been on its station but I couldn’t be certain enough to count it so the first notable species was a large flock of 100 Jackdaws which equalled the highest total ever on the Meadows. A similar number of Wood Pigeons was hardly notable however so the ponds were next on the agenda – and produced…not that much compared to recent times. Now that there’s so much standing water elsewhere on the reserve gulls have stopped using the main ponds for bathing so it was just wildfowl today. Forty Mallard, 125 Teal and two Wigeon in total plus a few Coot and a Moorhen. The single Moorhen on the water was certainly faring better than the other one I saw close-by as the second bird was firmly in the talons of a Buzzard, which quickly flew off with its prize without much ado.

And so to Snipe. I’d seen three flighting over whilst walking down the lane and a few more from time to time as I was watching the pond; by the time I’d reached the first field west of the main north-south drain I’d seen a very creditable 90, the fourth highest count ever and I’d not really covered any of the best areas for Snipe! Over the next hour and a half I criss-crossed back and to across the reserve, covering just a portion of it but approximately a third of that likely to host Snipe. One thing that has never happened on the reserve is a concerted effort to count just how many birds might be present at any given time as it’s such a huge task that would require at least a dozen people all spread out across the place counting just birds that flush in front of them. Today was something different however as the near gale force winds were on my side insofar as any birds taking to the air were practically obliged to head south east…at speed!

Gowy map

I tried to cover all the fields in the southern half of the reserve (see map to right) and managed this in the main despite some areas being inaccessible due to ditches with water to a depth above my wellies. Nonetheless, after the 90 minutes had passed the clicker revealed 385! This is far and away the largest total EVER and completely eclipses the previous high of 240 from January 2013, when the reserve was also under plenty of water.

Not entirely surprisingly, as I moved south, numbers of birds tailed off – which was excellent news insofar as any possibilities of double counting were effectively ruled out. That and the fact that all birds I’d kept a close watch on disappeared out of sight either to the south east or the west. The most southerly fields turned out to be all but devoid of birds but I theorised this as being down to the presence of 5,000 gulls! One Jack Snipe was seen amongst a flock of already airborne Snipe and a lovely adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL came quite close, as did a flock of 230 Lapwing.

Having finished the count and with wet feet despite wellies, I chose to trudge north back up the river to check for Little Egrets; there were eight, which was ‘plus one’ on recent days. Unfortunately however they were all on the wrong side of the river – recording the species on the reserve will have to wait until all the flooding in these fields disappears… By about midday I was taking about two kilos of mud for a walk and was feeling the effects to the tune of walking even slower than normal! No matter how often I sploshed through water to clear the stuff off, having taken a few strides thereafter saw the caked mud back in situ. Time to go!

Gowy dusk

I wanted another crack at both the owl and Bramblings so headed back towards Speckled Wood Lane where I met up with Chris Meredith and we chatted for a whiles about all things Gowy Meadows and how some people (Chris included) chose to spend midnight on New Years’ Eve at the Café near the summit of mount Snowdon! This might be seen as an unusual way to bring in the New Year but that’s only because it actually is! Whilst chatting, several flocks of Wood Pigeons flew over and in amongst them were a very nice 20 Stock Doves – not a particularly common winter bird on the reserve and 20 is therefore a good count. About the same time the sun was already going down, producing some nicely atmospheric scenery…

Little owl c. Steve Holmes

Little owl c. Steve Holmes

The Little Owl dutifully put in an appearance – though it looked a little more cowered down than normal – hardly surprising given the conditions I suppose but that’s twice in a row that it’s played hard to get!

No Brambling unfortunately despite most of the finch flock still being present and nor were there any in another large flock of 250 Chaffinches along the A5117 on my way back home. In between those two flocks I was obliged to pause a while just south of Thornton-le-Moors to watch a molehill in the making, the first of the year! A very enjoyable day in not the most hospitable of conditions – just proves that unless you are out there in amongst it you won’t see anything!

5th January

Cool. Almost no wind but cloudy for the most part with some sunny spells. c.8kms

The first day of transect surveying of the year produces no too much out of the ordinary but the day was rescued by the enormous numbers of gulls present in the southern parts of the reserve. In the two days since my last visit the river had dropped about 60 centimetres and virtually all the flood water in the fields to the west had disappeared. However, in what little remained stood nine Little Egrets, another ‘plus one’ day and another when none were ever seen on the reserve.

The first transect was actually one I never did in its entirety during the whole of 2017, it being along the river between the A5117 and the motorway it’s primary reason for being is to monitor dragonflies. Nonetheless and since I had it in the back of my head to spend some time with the gulls today it seemed an opportune moment to walk to them whilst surveying. Two Mistle Thrushes and four Stonechats were equally notable, the latter possibly moreso given the recent cold snap. The day total turned out to be a very creditable 10, though only eight were on the reserve. A small skein of Pink-footed Geese flew east quite low; a very good ‘year bird’ this early on. Actually ON the river there were half a dozen Moorhens and a lone Little Grebe. In the five minutes I spent watching the grebe it surfaced three times with small fish; quite an achievement given the river remains the colour of milk chocolate.

Once I’d reached the halfway point in the transect it was clear to see that the most southerly field, right next to the motorway was practically white over with gulls. A quick scan also revealed hundreds if not thousands more just to the south of the motorway but clearly also going down to land in fields…there was also a cloud over the landfill site too. The photograph below shows part of one of four similar sized flocks in the area.

Gulls at Gowy c. Steve Holmes

Gulls at Gowy c. Steve Holmes

Having to complete my transect unfortunately meant disturbing those gulls on the reserve but needs must and in any case I wanted to see what was beyond the motorway as well… Passing under it I thought back to the time when a Grey Wagtail wintered one time but a no show today meant the first good birds turned out to be a small flock of Linnets and the family party of Mute Swans; still four cygnets. A pair of Stonechats were good to see, so too a Raven but there were no longer any gulls other than those on the landfill site itself, estimated at 3,000 Herring, 150 Great Black-backed and 200 Black-headed; relatively small beer given the throngs I’d already seen in the air. Given the lack of anything else interesting I opted to turn around and head back north into the reserve again and the first bird, still in the shadow of the motorway bridge, was a Grey Wagtail! With the transect survey complete I turned my attention to gulls again as there were still a fair number bathing, resting and even sleeping to the east of the main north-south running main drain. To cut a long story short, I spent the next hour or so getting close enough to them without disturbance then took dozens of photographs of them in between scanning for anything unusual.

Through my binoculars I could only unearth one Lesser Black-backed Gull but through another hour at home spent studying the photographs I ‘found’ four Common as well as single adult and juvenile YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS. I can’t recall finding a juvenile before and doubtless wouldn’t have found this one either but for the photographs. Determining the numbers of birds involved was a steep challenge as firstly they were not all together and second, when flushed by either an unseen passing predator or someone sounding their horn on the motorway, the whole place was awash with gull flocks circling, moving from one collection point to another or leaving to the north. Counting with any degree of accuracy was simply a non-starter. However as a bare minimum through photographing the flocks and then making estimates, there must have been 12,000 Herring plus 1,000 each of Great Black-backed Black-headed and perhaps 10 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. In terms of birds physically ON the ground within the reserve boundary, the figures for Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls eclipse anything previously seen. The photograph below shows just a fraction of those present.

Gulls in flight c. Steve Holmes

Gulls in flight c. Steve Holmes

Time to move on – I’d thoughts of additional transects and wanted also to check out the numbers of Snipe again to see any change in numbers over the last two days; there was! Through having to restrict where I was walking by following the transect route I wasn’t able to walk across all the fields but the two that I could revealed just FIVE Snipe in total! Further Stonechats were nice however and several Wrens even moreso since they had survived the cold snap. Duck numbers on the pond in SJ4373 had reduced further, with only 30+ each of Teal and Mallard, a pair of Gadwall and a single Shoveler on show.

My return journey home was interspersed with nice views of Long-tailed Tit flocks in two places, the first in the grounds of Holy Bank House. Being at the top of a tall tree I tried ‘pishing’ them in to get a better count and out popped a previously unseen Goldcrest! As with Wren, both these species suffer badly during cold weather so it was comforting to see them. Thereafter a lovely charm of 22 Goldfinches near home was the days’ last highlight.

7th January

Frosty. Bright blue skies but overall very cold and icy, moreso once the northerly breeze started. c.8kms

One of the problems associated with birding in such cold conditions is that your feet get cold because you don’t walk fast enough to keep them warm. Thus it was that after not too long birding Cryer’s Lane my feet bade the rest of my body a fond farewell – and that was before there came confirmation that my right welly boot had indeed become the proud owner of a sizeable split. My right foot was not only cold on reaching the Gowy Meadows, it was also wet too!

Cryer’s Lane was actually quite good, with thousands of birds continuously flighting around; 250 Jackdaws, 50 Common Gulls, 45 Curlew and 29 Pied Wagtails stealing centre stage from other gulls. A good sign took the form of 35 Lapwing heading north… After these initial successes there was about 40 minutes of absolute nothingness apart from 75 Redwing and an obliging Buzzard – though I think it had no idea it was being given such a tag as for certain it had no idea I was taking its photograph from 150 metres away!

Buzzard c. Steve Holmes

Buzzard c. Steve Holmes

Little owl c. Steve Holmes

Little owl c. Steve Holmes

Wandering slowly back north towards Thornton-le-Moors I was already hatching plans to try for a photograph of the resident Little Owl and on approaching the location went into “stealth mode” – making sure my footfalls were silent and watching my shadow like a hawk lest either spooked my quarry. Of course it had to be there for any of it to make sense and my cause wasn’t helped by the coincidental arrival at the appointed location of a noisy tractor – fortunately it passed by rather than stopped… As ever, I slowly poked my head from behind the hedgerow and fortunately the bird was there and sat where it should be sat! I rattled off a few banker shots before zooming in further. I could see through the lens that amazingly the bird was completely oblivious to my being there so I actually had to ‘pish’ to make it look at me! This proved a success and I got the mugshot I was after, in fact several before it finally departed. Interesting to see differently dilated pupils as dictated by the sun…

Oystercatcher c. Steve Holmes

Oystercatcher c. Steve Holmes

The Chaffinch flock opposite the end of Speckled Wood Lane yielded a single BRAMBLING plus five Linnets and three Greenfinches but the huge flock of at least 700 Wood Pigeons was the most impressive sight. With my last attempt to survey this particular transect essentially ruined by cowpokes, it seemed only logical to try again and it was actually quite entertaining with good numbers of Blackbirds in particular and a lone BRAMBLING actually on the reserve. Surprisingly, the main pond in SJ4373 was all but clear of ice and having failed to find a Woodcock in their usual haunt I had to make do with 10 Wigeon and 25 Teal. Worse was to follow as the cold snap had further reduced snipe numbers, from five to four! At the river I’d no enthusiasm for gulls – not that there were any as the landfill site isn’t worked on Sundays – so headed north. As I’d hoped, with the flood water in the fields to the west of the Gowy being completely frozen, some of the Little Egrets present had come across to the right side of the river, in fact at least six of the nine now present. Scanning around to see just how many there were brought brief excitement as on bird teased me for a few second by not having yellow, but muddy feet; Cattle Egret will have to wait for another day! There was to be a nice surprise however as whilst scanning through the sheep there was an Oystercatcher. Though not on the reserve it was nonetheless a very good patch bird so early in the year.

The same scan also accounted for a small party of Long-tailed Tits, a very rare visitor to this part of the reserve. Initially they were on the west of the river but over a few minutes had crossed and continued on their way east along a fenceline…proof positive that birds move around by following linear features such as hedgerows or rivers and the like. Two adult Cormorants were flying up and down the river, not knowing whether to risk landing or not before clearing off north over the oil refinery; so, on to the next transect, the permissive footpath parallel to the A5117. Bird-wise it was almost a complete blank but I soon found the culprit…padding along some 50 metres ahead of me was a beautifully coloured Fox! I considered taking some photographs but rump-on views are not the stuff of legend so I opted out. Through not being seen heard (or presumably smelled) it remained in front of me for over 100 metres and when I last saw it it was headed down into the partly frozen ditch! Not a great day, but some interesting sights.

8th January

Almost a carbon copy of the previous day, excepting the wind was from the south, bringing cloud. c.11kms

Knowing up front that today was likely to be as cold as the 7th, I chose to begin by looking for some target species generally only available in the extreme west of my patch, namely: Grey Partridge, Kingfisher, Redpoll, Siskin and Yellowhammer. None are particularly easy to see and both finches are decidedly rare. Nonetheless, it was crisp and clear so the challenge was on. With the canal frozen for 90% of its length any Kingfishers are all but obligated to frequent a place where there’s a bridge as the structures somehow manage to maintain enough heat to keep the water open, rather than iced over.

A Grey Wagtail was nice to see on the sewage farm, as were four Reed Buntings across the canal, a female Bullfinch in the hedgerow and 35 Pink-footed Geese heading south but these highlights apart, the notebook was hardly troubled for the next couple of hours other than to record 13 Lapwing and another Bullfinch. Translated, this meant that four of the challenge species had not been found and the fifth was no different as I approached Tree Sparrow Lane in SJ4272 – which approaches the landfill site from the northwest.

Gowy Gulls c. Steve Holmes

Gowy Gulls c. Steve Holmes

As if I’d passed through some invisible barrier, suddenly there were birds everywhere! Hundreds of Lapwing, 100 Redwing, 50 Fieldfare, a Redshank, a Goldcrest… and a white carpet of gulls on practically every field!

My brain is starting to hurt because of looking at gulls in quantity day after day… it’s not so bad if you find something among the masses but it’s no easy task when faced with thousands upon thousands of the things all moving around the place! The landfill has however been a bit of a happy hunting ground in the past so OK – just get on with it Steve – it might take your mind off the fact that your toes are on another away day! Unfortunately, the nature of the land hereabouts and the gulls’ chosen ‘roost’ site made my getting very close a practical impossibility and sure enough, despite best endeavours to blend into the background, those in the nearest field gradually spooked - almost as gradually as I was approaching, and very Mexican wave-like. The net result was the whole world was eventually in the air and practically blotted out the sun at one point the flocks were so dense.

Of course, everything else gets airborne thanks to gulls bottling it, this time including a Raven plus seven Herons. As I crossed over the footbridge a Stonechat came in and briefly sat on a post quite close too. I’d made a fair few photographs of the gull host but at home found nothing better amongst them other than 11 Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Little Grebe c. Steve Holmes

Little Grebe c. Steve Holmes

Passing under the motorway onto the reserve once more the first thing I always do is to check for anything on the river before venturing out from cover. The Little Grebe was present once again but not much else so my thoughts next went to checking the gorse bushes for Stonechats. I panned around to do so and in so doing was briefly stunned into mentally asking myself “what on earth is that?” A quite large, pale-bellied bird was sat on a post looking directly at me…it was perhaps asking itself the same question! There were simply no features to see other than it was pale, until it turned its head sideways to reveal a wholly red crown. GREEN WOODPECKER! That was the good news, the bad was that in the few seconds it took me to get my camera turned on and pointed, it had disappeared; I have no idea if I went to my left or right (therefore becoming a new species for Gowy Meadows!) so had to be satisfied with just seeing what was in fact just the fifth ever for my local patch and the first since 2001 – bird of the year elect, as for sure it’s going to take something very special to top it!

On breaking cover I quickly noted another 200+ Lapwing and another snow-topped field with thousands more gulls but I neither had the inclination to go looking for something among them nor did I want to disturb them. Again therefore it was a case of take some photos and examine them back home… all I could find was one Lesser Black-backed Gull and half of what might have been an adult Iceland… I’ll never know.

Moving north along the river I was grateful that the permafrost was still solid else I’d have been lugging yet more mud around and stumbled into two Little Egrets; one flew of south and the other north so I quickly forgot about them and contented myself trying to find other things… which was no easy task; a single Skylark was the first on the reserve for months however. Thus it was that a good few minutes after having forgotten about egrets I noticed a wing-flap of an egret that had presumably over-balanced when feeding along the waters’ edge under the bank. I slowly moved towards it and subsequently had my closest ever views of Little Egret – no more than three metres; they really are little! With nothing else causing me to stop I thought a fitting end to the day would be to complete the fifth transect on the reserve and also to have a look at what had been happening with the ditch clearing that I’d first noticed whilst walking along the canal.

There were very few birds but 22 Stock Doves together were nice. The ditch cleaning was actually being done very well indeed and the extracted mud and vegetation was already hosting three Stonechats, a Blackbird and two Robins! A veritable triple whammy – a win for cleaning out the ditch, a win for attracting birds in to feed off the cleared materials and a win to have said birds recorded on my transect!

Journeying home from this point was essentially uneventful apart from a huge flock of Wood Pigeons (500) and Stock Doves (300!) half way along the A5117. It had been a struggle in the most-part but a very handy 51 species for the day would tell a different story.

10th January

Initially a beautiful sunny day but heavy cloud rolled in from north in the early afternoon. c.7kms

The main mission of the day was to deliver some new books to the CWT at Holly Bank House in Thornton-le-Moors and having done that I realised I was wearing far too many winter clothes for once! I’d never actually walked through the wood adjacent to the property so took the opportunity to do so what with Chris Meredith on site for a meeting with the Environment Agency.

Fungi c. Steve Holmes

Birding-wise it was completely rubbish save for a single Pied Wagtail and technically that was on the roof of the building! Nonetheless it was an opportunity to see what there was in the wood and it was actually better than I’d thought it would be. Plenty of Silver Birch but at least one young Hazel, some hawthorn, holly – even ferns so it’s a place I’m going to enjoy wandering round more regularly from now on. The most interesting aspect of the 20 minutes or so I spent wandering was fungi. With plenty of dead and decaying wood lying around there were numerous clumps of several species, most of which I photographed with at least one (yellowy-orange) I’d no memory of having seen before, possibly DACRYMYCES CHRYSOSPERMUS.

Gorse shieldbug c. Steve Holmes

Gorse sheldbug c. Steve Holmes

I’d spent so much time on the reserve already this year that I chose to take a rest from it and instead just walked the roads in a large circle back to home. In essence the walk was much the same as the small wood had been – hardly a bird on show at all! Walking south however there were 200 Jackdaws and 100 Carrion Crows within the Gowy Meadows, both of which are sizeable counts but there wasn’t too much else despite my dawdling along at glacier speed… The gorse bushes in SJ4473 gave up the first Gorse Shieldbug of the year, thanks no doubt to the sunshine but appreciated nonetheless 

Geese c. Steve Holmes

Geese c. Steve Holmes

The pond in SJ4573 itself wasn’t hosting too much, perhaps 20 Wigeon and a Moorhen or two but the field was being browsed by another 200 Wigeon, 39 Canada and two Greylag Geese! In winter, this insignificant looking pond has hardly a dull moment

Curlew and ruff c. Steve Holmes

Curlew and ruff c. Steve Holmes

I’d half anticipated seeing Curlew in the next field north of the pond but it was completely clear apart from 50 Redwing but crossing over the motorway into SJ4574 was entirely the opposite. There were perhaps a hundred gulls (including one Common) and 20 Curlew stood out like sore thumbs. Then there was another “oh hello” moment following the realisation that there were a number of smaller waders in the field too! In not being Lapwing they had to be of significant interest. I knew in my mind that they were going to be RUFF and took some photographs to confirm. That there were twenty, including both Ruff and Reeve, was amazing! In the upper photo below the second bird form the right is a male (Ruff) and though it’s not easy to be certain with them feeding, the rightmost and fifth from the left are almost certainly females (Reeves). Another interesting point to note is leg colour – the male on the right has clearly got ‘Redshank’ coloured legs whilst none of the others seem to have any real colouration at all… Ruff leg colour can be just about anything in the rainbow.

The flock constituted just the third record for my local patch, the last being in 2009 when a single was in a field just 300 metres to the north. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing to compete with the Ruff and the remainder of my walk home was uninterrupted by anything so it was a serious high on which to end the day!

11th January

Overcast, dull and cold. c.1km

Somewhat of a hotchpotch couple of hours with three targets: checking on the RUFF flock, looking for flowering plants and fungi. The first target was readily met but only 15 birds remained, along with 14 Curlew. Nearby, the pond in SJ4573 seemed unchanged from yesterday other than the number of Herring Gulls present, at least 350.

Snowdrops c. Steve Holmes

Snowdrops c. Steve Holmes

Challenge two was also easily achieved though there was some doubt as to what the pink flower found actually was – perhaps some form of campion. On the plus side, there were some different fungi found within the wood adjacent to Holly Bank House, including one very smart purplish coloured bracket. In Thornton-le-Moors wood there were a fair number of clumps of flowing Snowdrops and yet more fungi but the star of the show was the years’ first Nuthatch.

The final venue was the ponds in SJ4275 which was a shade disappointing given only four Coot and two Tufted Duck were present on either of the two ponds. Lots more catkins were showing however and the gorse was flowering nicely also. The bonus here however was the discovery of a nice new pond on what was the site of the now defunct cycle track. Just whether its permanent remains to be seen but it looks promising for the moment.

12th January

Foggy initially and it never really cleared completely. c.9km

I was quite surprised to see foggy conditions on throwing back the curtains this morning as I hadn’t thought the previous day to have been sunny enough to warrant such punishment… Starting on the riverbank at the A5117 was nothing but gloomy and there was precious little on view anywhere as I comforted myself by thinking “if you see anything it will be pretty close”! After a few minutes of wandering slowly south the air was suddenly full of Pink-footed Goose calls – only I couldn’t see a thing! The noise got closer and closer, practically overhead and then finally, there they were, a lovely skein of about 300 birds aimlessly circling and clearly hopelessly lost. At one point it looked like they would drop in to land but it may have been me that I spooked them away and they soon disappeared back from whence they came.

Also to the west was a single Little Egret, the only one I was to see all day.

Crossing the middle of the reserve produced little apart from a Reed Bunting, but five Stonechats were interesting enough. Teal could be heard on the main pond in SJ4373 from quite a distance so I was anticipating bigger numbers than of late and so it turned out to be. In fact, apart from Wigeon, all duck species present showed some increase in number; in total there were: 70 Mallard, 300 Teal, five Shoveler and four Gadwall to go with the lone Wigeon.

Speckled Wood Lane again produced a Little Owl calling anxiously, the last bird to make the notebook until I was approaching the pond in SJ4573. The actual pond was completely devoid of anything but a handful of Black-headed Gulls but there were at least 150 Herring, 10 Great Black-backed and single Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls standing or sitting in the field. Scanning around I eventually found all the wildfowl doing likewise just to the north of the pond…lots of them. Clearly there were significantly more Canadas than of late and there was a sizeable carpet of Wigeon too but very difficult to count due to them being in grass. Thanks to a passing flock of 100 Pink-footed Geese however all the duck exploded into the air and landed on the pond, making any surface water difficult to see! At or about the same time another flock of gulls came in, raising the number of Black-headed to 250. Judging by the size and density of the flock when flighting into the pond, I estimated at least 400 Wigeon, the highest count ever on the local patch. Immediately north of the motorway the flock of RUFF looked to have moved on but on reaching my favourite gate watch-point, there they were, 15 as yesterday along with 19 Curlew.

13th January

Overcast; chilly southerly wind. c.4km

The latest in the series of guided bird walks on the reserve was super-well attended to the extent that it was possibly slightly detrimental. Even with the best of attentions with such a group there will be some people who simply won’t see everything on view.
Bird of the day was unquestionably the single Jack Snipe flushed from dense cover at an uncharacteristic 20 metres or more before adopting the characteristic short flight back into cover. Two Little Egrets were feeding on the ditch clearings well away from the river for a change though another remained in the fields to the west of the Gowy. The dead Mute Swan had clearly been visited by some predator or other in the last 24 hours as there were hundreds of feathers on the riverbank, along with a lovely charm of 60 Goldfinch.

Wildfowl numbers were slightly down on the previous day; despite a new high count of seven Gadwall for this winter period, Teal numbers had halved to around the 125 mark. A nice male Bullfinch rounded things off nicely.

15th January

Incidental garden record.

A female Chaffinch was a very unusual visitor to the garden today; though possibly under-recorded it looks to have been just our 13th ever record, with the last being in 2004!

18th January

Some sunny and rainy spells but generally overcast with moderate westerly breeze. c.9km

Overnight conditions had been pretty diabolical, with very high winds and torrential, continuous rain…all rather good weather to bring about some bird movement! I wanted to check on the Ruff flock so began walking the length of Cryer’s Lane, immediately noticing scores of Redwings and Fieldfares where over recent times there had been none at all. Some 325 birds in total were split roughly 50-50 between the two species. In the ex-Ruff field there were small numbers of gulls and a modest increase in Curlew to 44.

European white-fronted goose c. Steve Holmes

European white-fronted goose c. Steve Holmes

Justification for venturing out in the unhelpful conditions came next, when the pond in SJ4573 produced of its very best. Initially, having scanned both on the pond and its muddy verges, I’d found a dozen Canadas, three Greylags as well as a Lesser Black-backed Gull and 350 Wigeon. I then began checking the field surrounding the pond, looking primarily for Curlew (of which there were two) but there were also four Pink-footed Geese feeding close to a hedge! Slowly panning back to the pond to look for more it was clear that whilst I was finding the Pinks more geese had arrived. There were now 19 Canadas and 13 Greylags! Whilst re-counting them to be sure of numbers I had to do a quick double-take as I registered the fact that I was staring at an adult EUROPEAN WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE stood between two Canadas!! White-fronts are relatively small geese, so it’s possible it was there all the time but either way it became species 171 for the patch and the fourth ‘first’ the pond had delivered as new to the patch list (the others being Taiga Bean Goose, European Shag and Iceland Gull)!

Having spent some time with this super collection of birds it was time to continue on around the circuit and it was practically without incident until I unfortunately disturbed the Little Owl from its favoured perch some 40 minutes later. Sixty Chaffinches and a lone Jay were at the head of Speckled Wood Lane but otherwise it was equally quiet as the road had been earlier.

Another goal for the day was to see what kind of a job had been done on the ditch-clearing, particularly around the pumping station, where a main branch from an adjacent Willow had been physically IN the stream for quite some time… Net result – a very handy job indeed had been done, with the tree having been completely removed from the ditch and the resulting debris laid alongside.

The pond itself held similar numbers to recent times other than there being seven each of Gadwall and Shoveler. The lone male Wigeon persists in its wintering quest and Teal were again most numerous, being around the 200 mark.

Moving across the centre of the reserve I noticed that the motorway fields were once more coated in gulls but with an eye on the weather coming from the west which didn’t look nice at all I chose to wait for another day!

One of the cross ditches had been cleared also and a fantastic job had been made of it too – a nice slope on one side looks perfect for a wintering Green Sandpiper…all one has to do now is find it!

 

 

Raven c. Steve Holmes

Raven c. Steve Holmes

The river itself was birdless save for four Teal and as I was mentally trying to calculate when the last trip here was without me seeing a Little Egret, two were found feeding in the fields to the west of the Gowy. Along Thornton Brook and even from hundreds of metres away, there was clearly the giant form of a Raven, sat on the ground at the eastern end. It actually flushed into the air at the same time I noticed an immature Cormorant flighting in from the north so I lost track of it. 

Once the Cormorant had paid the briefest of visits to the pond in SJ4374 and was on its way once more I continued along the brook, noting a nice male Stonechat and then the Raven, quite close, sat on a transmission pylon. I managed one photograph before it flushed, flying head-on towards me before veering off – followed by two more that I’d not previously noticed.

A nice male Bullfinch in the grounds of Holly Bank House what had been a wonderful day in the field when I’d somehow managed to avoid getting drenched! Some ominous looking storms had miraculously passed either to the north or south of me and I saw several intense rainbows, but felt just the odd spot of rain. In shipping forecast parlance, the photo below would definitely have been characterised as ‘precipitation in sight’

Gowy view c. Steve Holmes

c. Steve Holmes

19th January

Initially sunny then generally overcast with stiff, icy westerly wind. c.10km

Duped into an essentially unplanned walk by the early nice conditions, this turned out to essentially be a re-run of the previous day. I’d some nagging doubts about there being two White-fronts on the pond in SJ4573 so, armed with my scope and pausing only to register 31 Curlew in the ‘Ruff field’, I headed straight there. My dubs were based on the photos I took the day before, when ‘the’ bird was in two places without me seeing how it got from one to the other!

As it turned out, there was only one bird and it was in a unified flock of all four species, the only one of which to show change being Greylag, having increased to 26. On the pond itself Teal numbers had also risen, to 16, the highest count since 30 in February 2013. As yesterday there was then a lull in proceedings until Speckled Wood Lane produced a Jay and eight Long-tailed Tits (but no Little Owl). The first thing that happened on reaching the meadows was my being overflown by 96 Pink-footed Geese, steadily heading northwest. My main mission was gulls however so without much ado I headed towards the motorway fields to discover that the overnight frost had put an icy coating onto the ponds and puddles there; number of gulls were hugely reduced as a consequence – though there were some to the west of the river. Half an hour produced nothing other than the three larger species so in increasing winds I headed back north. A single Skylark was the only bird of consequence until I noticed a Little Egret, sneakily trying to go unseen though flying with a party of Herring Gulls! It headed north and as it landed I thought I noticed the head of another on the riverbank. Five Stonechats were dotted around the place and sure enough, at the double gate close to the footbridge over the river there were not two but four Little Egrets. Not only that, once that had relocated to the fields west of the river I noticed there were already three there so the day total was a very nice seven. Equally nice, and centring their activities around Thornton Brook was a flock of at least 50 Fieldfares, some of which were looking very handsome indeed.

For reasons passing understanding given recent performances I chose to head home by walking the permissive footpath alongside the A5117. There were 32 Teal on the river north of the main road but that was basically that! My notebook didn’t actually see light of day again until I took it from my pocket in the living room once back indoors!

25th January

Dull and overcast with a light westerly breeze. c.1km

A somewhat impromptu trip brought about mainly to give me a break from processing moth records! Irrespective of the reason, it proved to be a very entertaining hour and a half. A short visit to the pond in SJ4573 revealed just 20 Canada Geese and 350 Wigeon – all the other geese having either departed completely or moved out of sight to the second, more distant pond in the square. There was however a single Gadwall, just the third record for the tetrad. On route to the ponds on the boundary of the refinery complex, a quicker stop found the Little Owl on station and it was even left undisturbed as a bonus.

Female hazel flower c. Steve Holmes

Female hazel flower c. Steve Holmes

One reason for the trip to the ponds in SJ4275 was to look for female Hazel flowers but it turned out to be far more interesting than that. In the half hour not only were the flowers found (good numbers in fact) but also there were plenty of duck; 35 Teal, 20 Mallard and a single Tufted Duck as well as two adult Mute Swans. Better yet, sitting over the nearby overgrown ditch was a Kingfisher and a brief snatch of CETTI’S WARBLER song completed the picture! 

Interestingly, the number of species seen both on Gowy Meadows and the local patch generally during January are already the highest ever (55 and 75 respectively)!

26th January

Beautiful cloudless day though still a little chilly. No wind. c.11km

Another attempt at Partridge for the year begins along the footpath north of the sewage works in SJ4274 which produced not only Goldcrest but Coal Tit in the space of a few moments as well as the early flowering stages of the only Mahonia bushes on the patch. Perhaps a dozen Pied Wagtails graced the sewage settling beds but that was just about that. Moving south along the canal, Partridge defied all attempts to be unearthed so it was just distant views of two Little Egrets and the first of several sightings of Raven for the day.

Heading east along Lesser Whitethroat Lane there was a lovely small party of Long-tailed Tits, some of which were acrobatically flycatching as they moved past me, followed by well over 100 Redwings, which I was inadvertently pushing along the hedgerow in front of me. By the time they had become bored with this game and had move off a scan produced three Little Egrets, two of which were quite close and one posed either looking skywards or listening intently! In the end, there were four, none of which were on the reserve.

Fox c. Steve Holmes

Fox c. Steve Holmes

Crossing the footbridge over the river, the immediate appraisal following a quick scan over the reserve was that there was absolutely nothing on view! I headed south, picking up more and more mud on my wellies as I went. After a short while I did another scan and though there were some corvids at last my attention was attracted to a Fox which looked to be munching on what was left of the dead sheep from a week earlier. A Raven was attempting to muscle in, which the fox was having none of, constantly turning on it to let it know who was boss – or so it thought. The next time I looked, the fox was heading in my direction and the Raven plus a few Magpies were squabbling over the carcass.

Clearly the fox wasn’t comfortable leaping over the water filled ditch which runs north south in the field it was walking in so it began walking south – just as I was. It ‘dogged’ my trail like this for a little while then just upped and disappeared. Right about that time I noticed that the motorway fields had another dusting of gulls and shamefully I decided not to go sifting through them for something out of the ordinary! As fate would have it however the decision proved the correct one as shorty after making it some numpty lorry driver thought beeping is horn for no reason was a good idea. Net result was over 4,000 gulls upped and flew directly over me – as ever, predominantly Herring Gulls but with 500 Black-headed and 100 Great Black-backed among them. The majority headed off towards the Mersey but a few hundred were pitching down onto the main pond in SJ4373 so it was a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – doing a little penance gull sifting whilst checking out the wildfowl at the same time! 

All in all, the pond was rather good; constant streams of large gulls coming in for a bathe, four Stonechats nearby and (answering a question I’d posed myself only days earlier) a single, trilling Little Grebe – hopefully back to breed. Whilst looking over the pond I noticed Shoveler, Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard and Teal and then a duck showing a little bit whiter…it was tucked away at the northern end of the pond with a Shoveler and turned out to be an immaculate male PINTAIL.

 

Shoveler c. Steve Holmes

Shoveler c. Steve Holmes

I think the whole scene put to the skies as a result of the sudden arrival of a group of Great Black-backed Gulls which at least enabled me to do some counting. In total there were around 350 duck, primarily Teal but with a very creditable 30 Shoveler (some with Gadwall in photo, right), the majority of which are new in. This is actually a significant count for the reserve in being not only the fifth highest total ever but also the most since March 2013!

Just about the last sighting of note concerned 25 Lapwing actually on the ground within the bounds of the reserve, itself an unusual event during winter. There was then a second sighting of ‘a’ or ‘the’ fox, actually hurtling along at break-neck speed away from something – presumed to be a walkers’ dog. Whatever the reason, the speed it was travelling at was very impressive.

Speckled Wood Lane was very quiet apart from 50+ Redwing and the Little Owl was elsewhere so the day ended on a bit of a whimper. That having been said, adding House Sparrow, Collared Dove and Rook on the way home brought the day-total to a surprising 53. The last Stonechat of the day concerned a female along the A5117, a site I’d never seen the species at before.

28th January

Overcast but dry; light westerly breeze. c.10km

A five hour wander saw me back home quite exhausted, thanks in the main to wearing too many clothes! I’d imagined that following overnight clear skies it would have been cold enough to warrant the full hit of warm clothing but actually it was relatively warm and I just overheated! All that and for precious little as it turned out. The fields either side of Cryer’s Lane were empty apart from a few hundred Black-headed Gulls and the pond in SJ4573 hosted just 200 Wigeon and a few more gulls so the first hour was essentially just a walk!

Reaching the vicinity of the old people’s home brought about a change of fortunes however with a flock of 100 Chaffinches plus three Mistle Thrush and the first of the days’ seven Ravens. Actually in the wood surrounding the home were all four species of common tit as well as two Nuthatches and the odd Redwing so things were definitely on the up. No Little Owl again however and though Speckled Wood Lane managed a lovely close flock of half a dozen Long-tailed Tits it wasn’t until beyond half way down the lane that something else of import showed. A stunning, brick red-chested male Sparrowhawk was flushed from one of the larger trees and clearly carrying its lunch it perched up again after 50 metres or so and allowed for prolonged views as it tore into the Blackbird it had plainly only recently caught. It continued to flush ahead of me whilst I continued down the lane, eventually disappearing across a field, catch still in hand.

Overlooking the main pond in SJ4373 saw my best laid plans for the days’ route laying in tatters around my ankles, thanks to a birder who had wandered well off the permissive footpaths and who was just disturbed everything in sight – and a Little Egret which up until he flushed it, hadn’t been. This was really annoying as he had the field craft of an absolute beginner but the gear of a serious birder. So, after counting all the wildfowl he disturbed form the pond including now 55 Shoveler) and noting a huge flock of at least 500 Redwing passing though I had a re-think and headed south. The new plan was to follow the main drain running north-south, cut across to the river and then head back north. Unsurprisingly this route brought very little of interest as it had almost certainly been disturbed by the aforementioned birder. Nonetheless on reaching the river a surprising duo in close proximity to the motorway bridge were a fine male Wigeon and a Little Grebe. There was to be another Little Grebe further north but other than a Skylark, actually nothing else! On reaching the footbridge there had been five Little Egrets in total, though only two were on the reserve side of the river.

Not having walked Thornton Brook for a while caused me to head back east along it, noting two more Stonechats and four presumably additional Shoveler on the pond in SJ4374 and that was that; nothing else over the last mile or more to trouble the notebook!

30th January

Overcast, dry and though initially icy cold it did warm up by mid-morning; no wind. c.10km

Beginning with a rare foray into the south-eastern part of the patch proved to be a great idea as one of the roadside fields along Hob Lane was hosting some of the wildfowl which had ‘gone missing’ from the more regularly watched pond in SJ4573. Though the recent White-fronted Goose was absent the four Pink-footed Geese were easily picked out from the 39 Greylags and 40 Curlew. The pond in the field was bigger than I’d ever seen it before and was clearly proving attractive as it also sported Mallard, Wigeon and even a Coot.

At the same time as all this was going on I noticed a lone Goldcrest in the hedgerow right in front of me and shortly thereafter found a very nice male Blackcap. In the photograph below, the centre goose walking away is still identifiable as Pink-footed though it’s smaller size, non-orange legs and much darker neck.

Greylag with pink-footed goose c. Steve Holmes

Greylag with pink-footed goose c. Steve Holmes

Fieldfare c. Steve Holmes

Fieldfare c. Steve Holmes

Heading west towards Gowy Meadows I was briefly interrupted by a small flock of mixed thrushes, including one rather confiding Fieldfare that for reasons passing understanding chose to remain atop the tree whilst all its friends had seen fit to flush on being passed under by a rather noisy truck – much to my annoyance!

Searching briefly for Gorse Shieldbug produced nothing save for the first 7-spot Ladybirds of the year. Even more annoying than the truck was yet another Nuthatch record off-Reserve – perhaps there’s a feeding station in the grounds of the old people’s home to match the one in Thornton-le-Moors and both of them are holding the Nuthatches because of the ready source of food. No Little Owl and other than two Long-tailed Tits Speckled Wood Lane held just the usual array of commoner species, the best being 20 Redwing. There was however a very nice patch of Snowdrops.

I chose to do a Green Sandpiper hunt once on the flat part of the reserve, checking in particular the ditches recently cleared out but with no luck whatsoever so it was back to the usual duck counting and Shoveler were again around the 50 mark; a pair of PINTAIL stole the show however despite there being eight Gadwall and perhaps 150 Teal present. There ‘seemed’ to be more Coot about too, perhaps returning breeding birds as there were virtually none through the earlier parts of the winter. Fourteen Snipe flushed in front of me and six Stonechats was a half-decent count.

There was to be zero across the centre of the reserve and not too much more for most of the trek north along the riverbank until reaching the footbridge. Here, a large flock of 60+ Goldfinches and two Little Egrets were sadly all on the wrong side of the Gowy but three Little Grebes were fishing merrily in the river, two very close to the bridge.

Two more Stonechats were close to the permissive footpath and on the main pond in SJ4374 sat a single Gadwall, whilst a lone Snipe was flushed by a low-flying helicopter – surprisingly just one from a large eminently suitable area. Before leaving the reserve and heading for home I took one final look south over the reserve on the off-chance of an owl or raptor. I noticed a ‘ball’ of Starlings first then two or three small parties of Teal flighting around, both of which indicated something being around that they didn’t like. Whatever it was went unseen, but not before it had filled the air with Snipe! Initially one or two, then a dozen or more and finally a huge flock of at least 120 birds that did a few circuits before pitching back into cover surrounding the pond in SJ4373. As to the culprit, my guess would have been Peregrine as I’d earlier thought to have heard one – that and the fact that there have been a number of kills on the reserve of late which I’ve attributed to Peregrine too. In keeping with recent trips, the return walk home along the A5117 was just about devoid of birds; there wasn’t even a Collared Dove or Rook!

So that was January! Bird species lists of 78 for my local patch and 58 for Gowy Meadows both eclipse the previous best January highs of 71 and 47 respectively, both from 2015.