Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Quate the wrowng berds....

My new and wonderful other half, herein referred to by her current moniker as 'the geo-environmental engineer' has a 7 year old daughter, equally as wonderful as her mother and with whom on school pick-up days I play a game. The Scottish accent that accompanies this simple and yet pleasingly silly knock-knock game is not mandatory, but adds to the effect somewhat. Now I mean no disrespect in using a Scottish accent and make no apologies...the Scots are, after all, extremely helpful when it comes to birding...even going so far as to point out areas where you're likely to miss birds!

Anyway, today, with Burns Night just gone and having missed it and probably suffering from the withdrawal effects of having not eaten haggis...this sprang to mind.

'Knock, Knock'




'Strange who on some days ye canny get the berds ye want but get enstead quate the wrowng berds'

How so you may ask? Here's how. For several days now I have been itching to kill two birds with one stone and get to the patch. These two birds are Bittern and Brent Goose. The latter was reported 2 days ago from Norton Marsh and is the first record I can remember of one being on the patch, although I confess I neglected to enquire as to its belly. I should of course point out that the 'killing' of these birds is entirely metaphorical and in any case counter-productive - you can't tick a dead bird. Either way... I wanted these birds on the year list and so have been trying to find a way to free up time to hit the patch. This is currently a problem. The only times in the week I could conceivably manage this is before or after work and the amount of daylight available at these times coupled with the aforementioned birds being located at opposite ends of the patch, makes this tricky.

Now, I am currently reading Jules Verne's '20,000 leagues under the sea' and it gave me an idea. Not a good one...well... quite a good one, but totally impractical as it turned out, but one I intend to share with you briefly. On reading said masterpiece it struck me that 20,000 leagues is pretty deep! Now a league is 3 nautical miles and so we're looking at a depth of 6666.66 miles. That presents two problems. First the radius of the Earth is only 1148 leagues (yes, I worked it out) and the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, a mere 1.96 leagues. It's impossible for the Nautilus to have dived, therefore, to 20,000 leagues. Ergo, the latter must refer to the distance travelled underwater...roughly equivalent to 2.77 times around the world (I won't burden you with the maths, but feel free to check it at home). Given that the Nautilus' top speed was 50 knots, it could complete this in just under 50 days and a single circumnavigation in 18 days (eat your heart out Fineas Fogg!). By any measure Captain Nemo's steampunk submarine  was one fast motherf***er!

So here's my thinking. Borrow the Nautilus, dunk it in the Manchester Ship Canal and I could go from one end of the patch to the other in about 5 minutes. Now allowing from embarkation and disembarkation (maybe another 5 minutes) this would still allow me about half an hour at each end of the patch to slaughter the proverbial birds required for the list. All that I then needed to do was to free up time after work! Fallah! I managed just that.

T'was with eager anticipation, therefore, and some enthusiasm that I pondered the challenge to come as I sat aboard my commuter train to Runcorn. All was going exceedingly well (though I still hadn't received a wire from Nemo at this point about borrowing his sub)..until...UNTIL... I stepped off the train on to the platform. It was at that point that I was hit by 20mph winds and had that sinking ground hog moment (see recent post). It was too windy AGAIN to stand a chance of getting either bird today. No other option therefore than to give the pro-lifers the bird (no pun intended) and abort said ground hog. There'd be no birding today. Ah well, least I got a reply from aboard the Nautilus...

Sir, It was with some amusement that I received your wire asking if it might be possible to make temporary use of my vessel. Although under different circumstances I should be delighted to acquiesce to your request, at the present moment I am approximately 375 miles south-east of the Malay at a depth of 34 fathoms. It's quite impossible I'm afraid Sir. I do however, have an answer to the question you posed when last we met. It seems, under the circumstances, somewhat apt. 

Sincerely, Nemo

"Are fish deep and meaningful?"
A boy asked of his dad,
And after thinking carefully,
He said "I'll tell you lad."
"Some think the cod is deep,
As it thinks in fluent French.
But the deepest fish of all,
Is the Mariana Tench"

Monday, January 28, 2013

Ment Only...

The plan had been simple. Set alarm for 5am, bag some coffee and munchies, drive to the patch, park on Lapwing Lane and walk to the Eastern Reedbed to watch the sun come up and bag me a Bittern or s(i)e(d)ge. Oh but t'were so simple... For a start we didn't get to bed until 2am and the Baldrickesque cunning plan to stick on The Matrix and fall asleep to the background noise of Keanu Reeves turned out not to be the expected 'cunning a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University' type plan at all, but an epic failure on the cunning plan front. 4:20am and I'm still awake. Now maybe I should just have got up there and then but I decide to set the alarm for 6:30am...I'm gonna need kip... that should still give me time enough to beat the sunrise. And so it was. By 7am I was at the reedbed thanks to the unexpected...both barriers were open! All was dim...and quiet save for the chakking of the Jackdaws on their roost...beginning to wake up.

07:16 - A male Gadwall flew over unseen, giving it characteristic dry rasping burb and I could make out the reeds, bowing toward the south-east corner of the reedbed... fixed there by the stiff northwesterly blowing over my shoulder. I could see too that the water was still frozen...usually a good sign. On still days, there are two give-aways when trying to track down the whereabouts of the reedbed's Bitterns. If you listen carefully you can sometimes hear the faint cracking of the thin ice as they stalk through the reeds and then look for the tell-tale sign of a Phragmites stem convulsing abrubtly as the bird, still hidden moves past. Once your eye is in and if you're lucky, you can follow the bird's progress through the reeds until it creeps into the open and maybe even comes out on to the ice. Not today though. The wind had put paid to any chance of seeing one, unless it took one of its brief, irregular flights between patches of reed...and to be honest there was too much of a blow today for that to be a reasonable opportunity. On top of that, any free water would be among the reeds themselves and so that, I reasoned, would where the bird(s) would stay today...feeding amid the shelter of the reeds.

07:21 Still dim. Skylark over calling. Then Mallard... I light the page of my notebook with my phone and scribble some notes.

07:26 - I can see colours. Sunrise isn't officially until 08:04, but for me, the sun is up when monochrome turns to polychrome. Light enough at any rate to see what I can pick out on Mill Brook Pool behind me. Answer? 32 Teal (almost all males) and 3 Gadwall... all on a small patch of water where the marshy area runs into the (still frozen) pool. Carrion Crow over calling.

07:29 - attention back on the Eastern Reedbed...straining against the wind and raucous cacophony of the Jackdaw roost to hear... 2 Water Rail squealing and a Moorhen 'currucking'.

07:32 - and wandering out on to the wet flush in the north-east corner of Mill Brook Pool is a small flock of Canada Geese...except when I get the bins on them, they're nothing of the kind. It's a whole bunch of Grey Herons (!)...fourteen of them to be exact...just leisurely strolling out... 12 adults and 2 juveniles and the most I have seen in one group ever on the patch.

07:35 - the noise from the Jackdaw roost escalates, signalling their imminent departure to  morning feeding grounds further west. It take them just a couple of minutes to up sticks and the only sound left is the bleating of the 2 remaining Teal on MBP, before they too head off. Silence.

07:39 - Redwing over calling and Jonathan Livingstone Heron decides to leave the Millbrook gathering to do his or her own thing on the Eastern Reedbed. Distant Robin, singing and Blackbird alarm call. Reed Bunting calling softly in front of me. Pheasant coughing somewhere nearby.

07:42 - The first gulls begin to drift over east and the first Woodpigeon flocks head south over the reedbed. Still unsurprisingly no Bittern. It's clouding over, threatening rain.

07:46 - A couple dozen Starlings erupt unexpectedly out of the reeds where they've been roosting overnight and before I can formulate fully in my mind the probable presence somewhere of a Sparrowhawk (they usually take advantage of such roosts), I spot one flopping along the edge of the far reeds, half-assed. It's way too windy for it to have a decent crack at the remaining few Starlings leaving the roost, and it doesn't bother.

07:54 - Rain, and I decide to find shelter at Pumphouse until it clears and head to the eastern hide. Idiot! The wind has shifted to a more westerly track and so I'm getting wind and rain in my face. Least at the reedbed it was blowing on my back! Either way...pointless to stay, so I head off toward Lapwing Lane. Well, to be honest, I entirely misjudged the rain and by the time I'd decided to head to Halfway House, it had stopped and there was blue sky in patches. 2 Fieldfare fly over the potholed track to the parking spot by the black and yellow gate.

08:12 -  and the track to the river is wet. No doubt a victim of the recent snow melt, though at the previous end of the reserve the snow was still lying on the tracks...all polished smooth by the wind and slippery as an eel to drive on. Here though, just wet. Very wet. Still, I pick up Mute Swan en route and 19 Curlew overhead calling. There's a Redshank near the warehouses, but no sound of a Common Sandpiper anywhere. They sometimes overwinter along this stretch of the Manchester Ship Canal and so I'd been hopeful. Ah well.

08:37 - I'm at Halfway House and quickly realise (a) there's only an upturned bucket left to sit on since the camping chairs left by various patchers had been nicked and (b) how much I miss my scope. It's been so long since I hit this part of the patch that it hadn't really clicked how impossible it is to work effectively with just bins... nor how frustrating. This jewel in the patch crown had been reduced to murky paiste by the loss of my treasured optics in last year's divorce.

All I can make out are Black-headed Gulls, a single Great Black Backed Gull, 20-30 Greylag Geese, a similar number of Canada Geese, 35 Curlew, 6 Lapwing and a Shelduck. If there was any interesting small stuff out there, I was not going to pick it out ...from this distance with just my Leicas...say goodbye to any Ringed Plover or Dunlin then. Never mind... it's still my favourite spot... and's not always about what you see... least not for me. Next stop, Upper Moss Side...

... which was even wetter! That pic above is the path through Long Field (the one between the white house and Tree Sparrow Field) and there was nothing about. No Tree Sparrow. No Yellowhammer. No finches. No Stonechat either on the Typha of the Phrag Field nor Woodcock nor Snipe in the new plantings nr the White House. Do I care? Not a jot! I had a couple hours on the patch... splendid !

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cracking little redhead...

Well, it's been maybe NINE months since last I was on the patch and posted here...but all that is about to change. 2013 is the new beginning and I can tell you I'm chomping at the proverbial bit. SO, last Sunday (20th Jan)... I left my Geo-Environmental Engineer other half finishing off one of her reports and set off. Hadn't been driving more than 10 minutes when I get a text from Gary, a fellow patcher (who impressively finished last year on 125 - nice one)... 'Brambling at the feeding station'. Very cool! I always try to get the winter specialities nailed in the first few months and hit the patch ton before the first migrants arrive. Brambling, therefore, was a good heads up to start the day.

Arrived at the Feeding Station to see about 4-5 other birders including two of my regular patch chums, Den and Mal. The Brambling had been there, but had gawn off-piste for a bit and so we just chatted and played catch up. It was great to be back! Minutes later who should arrive but Mully... veteran patcher and annual patch list challenger. Game on :D. Well long story short (for now dear reader, I'll be back in a lengthier earnest soon), the Brambling duly put in a brief appearance and I gleaned a bagful of patch gen from the assorted throng and more than enough to send me tripping through the snow in search of year ticks. Targets for the few patch hours - Goldeneye, Smew, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Goosander and Bittern...though to be honest, I was just glad to be nibbling at the patch cake again and was today, in no real need of birding cherries on top.

So, first destination Birchwood Pool. I love the stroll to BWP from Lapwing Lane... not sure why, but the path to the little bridge where the Tawny Owl sometimes roosts always relaxes me. Shame she wasn't in the ivy-covered tree today, but ho hum... the 'chakking' of the Jackdaws and the bluey-white glaze of the patchy snow more than made up for it... as did the emptiness of the west hide. Very peaceful. Quick scan picked up Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Pochard, Teal... but I was struggling a bit to get my eye in. It had been SO last year's divorce saw me end up having to pawn my scopes and so I was down to my trusty Leica bins...great kit, but even so...challenging for eyes that are getting older and birds at a distance. Was that the female Goldeneye or female Smew I'd been told were both here... or just a Teal, slightly silhouetted and hunched down on the water? Wait... dive you... nope. It was asleep. Probably Teal. Ah well... maybe try the south hide I thought.

Better luck here. Quick scan yielded loads of Shoveler and higher numbers of Pochard than I can remember recently... but there to my left...close in, up she popped. Female Goldeneye. No sign of her rather more gorgeous cousin though. Left me one last option. East hide. Tromped through the edge of Birch Wood and picked her up immediately on the walk down to the gide. Cracking little rehead... and a patch first for me. Gorgeous. I have a real thing for Smew.

Well this was turning out to be a splendid way to start the patch year. Ducks galore! Next stop Pumphouse Pool where there were more Shoveler and Gadwall and a stonking male Goldeneye to go with the female on BWP. Can't remember the last time there were two on the patch. Happy days. Eastern Reedbed next. Hour later still no Bittern (though the Water Rail was nice and the Green Woodpecker even better) and so I hit the river at the far east end of the patch in search of Goosander. Nada. Did get another Brambling though in the bushes along by Arpley Meadow and spatterings of other finches on the way back to the car. All in all. Very nice start to the birding year. Not tallied up yet...but must have had 50-60 species. Out at crack of dawn tomorrow for another go at will no doubt be back here again soon. Happy birding ;)