Big Hand Ranch
There was a cold wind a’blowin on the patch today and that together with the odd clear night of late meant that the long hoped for thaw still hadn’t happened. I usually gauge the state of play en route to the patch from a little pond I pass on Pitt's Heath Lane by Sandymoor (my route in). Today, as it has been for about a month, it was still iced, but at least it had a few wildfowl, including a pair of Mute Swans, which is something the patch hasn’t thrown up yet this year! The likely lack of thaw on the patch itself was soon confirmed at the Angler’s Pool which today was devoid not only of both anglers and pool... but birds yet again. I had fleeting hopes of something avian in the distance, but quickly discovered that the white blobs on the ice at the far end were not gulls or wildfowl but broken pieces of ice that somebody had lobbed from the bank. The Big Hand Ranch (opposite the pool), was also quiet. Nothing on the horse paddocks or pill boxes and no sign of the Little Owl in the gap on the roof (although I was to learn later that it had been seen earlier in the morning). Instead there was a solitary male Kestrel there, puffed up against the stiff breeze, staring at the ground.
There were at least a few birds on the ship canal by the Swing Bridge though; 14 Mallard, 14 Coot, 2 Tufted Duck and 2 Gadwall upstream and 6 more Coot downstream. Over the bridge and... it was going to be hooching today (one of the reasons I tend not to stay long at weekends), as the car park was almost full and there were already people walking down Lapwing Lane with scopes and bins. What an optimistic bunch. Bypassed the car park (as usual) and headed up past the lorry bit and warehouses where I got my first new bird (and surprise) of the day in the shape of a male Blackcap that flew across the track into the small strip of woodland (Birch Strip) along the south side of Birchwood Pool. Nothing on the viaducts or Pumphouse Pool as I drove by although the latter was now about 1/3rd thawed and actually had open water at the east end for the first time in yonks. Thought I’d check it from the east hide (just in case) and bumped into 3 birders plodding along the thickly muddy track (Harry and his 2 mates I think). Shot past them in my old Volvo, parked up outside the east hide, quickly confirmed absence of birdage from inside the east hide, did a reversed 3-point turn at the bottom of the dip and trundled past the 3 birders again. This time in the opposite direction.
It seemed like everybody was out an about today! Bumped in to Tony P on my way to the Eastern Reedbed (he’d just had male Peregrine) and Roy (+ bike) feeding the Robin at the hide there. Roy hadn't seen much so far but at least the wildfowl numbers were up in the NE corner of Millbrook Pool (still the only pond with any ducks on!); 60 Teal, 3 Mallard, 7 Gadwall and 18 Shoveler (these were new arrivals since my last visit and my first for 2011). Was briefly enjoying a rather big looking Common Buzzard perched at the back of the pool when what should appear low over from the south but a honking great Peregrine followed by a somewhat slimmer version... a female and a male. Very nice and the third of six new birds for the year I’d get today. Mike M had text me to say these lil beauties were knocking about a few days ago, so it was gratifying to pick them up. Maybe this year they’ll hang around long enough to breed. Fingers crossed. Quickly scoped the near shore of the big island on Millbrook Pool for Woodcock (one was there at year end) but nothing there today. Decided as everywhere was still frozen to head east where I found John P parked up by the substation, togging up ready to hit the east river for Goosander. Great minds. Not much about though by the viaducts (which didn’t bode well)... a Moorhen on the bank and a Cormorant in the water. Always worth a look up the other end by the factories though at this time of year coz there’s a bit of bend in the river there and you never know what’s going to be tucked in on the bank. Today though there was just a couple of Magpie hopping about in one of the willows overhanging the river and 11 Mallard.
We were just about to head back when what should drift in and and alight on one of the old gantry cranes over the river but a new year Raven. We watched it for a while as it worked it’s way along the metal framework. Next up was a Common Buzzard over the river closer to us. The Raven was on it in a flash and quickly saw it off, pronking once as it casually returned to its perch overlooking the river. I saw them mobbing buzzards down this end of the patch on several ocassions last year AND had a family party over the reserve during the summer, so they breed nearby I’m sure. I’d always rather assumed though that it must be at Fiddler’s Ferry, but maybe it’s around here? Watch this space. More stuff over as we walked back to the cars... 14 Redwing, 10 Goldfinch and a solitary Skylark. Reed Bunting, Siskin (new for the year), Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest (presumably the same one that had been in the nearby brambles on my last visit).
OK. Time now short, so it was off to check on the Tawny Owl. John had heard tale of its return, but it was sitting higher up in its tree. Decided in the car on the way, to check the Feeding Station for Brambling, but as I parked up four more peeps on the hunt for birds appeared and it was clear that there was nothing about. Unfortunately that applied to Tawny Owl as well, as despite our collective 10 eyes, we couldn't find it, although another Raven did fly by... which was nice. Cold now so headed back to the car (brief chat with another 2 birders... I have never seen it so busy!) and did a slow drive around the Upper Moss Side loop picking up a few Yellowhammer and a couple of House Sparrows (final new year birds) on the way, before catching up with one of my old project students with another bloke on the track past Hillcrest Quarry. You know something... I wouldn’t be surprised if today there were more people on the patch than birds :) Year tally 61 species... Bring on the thaw!!!