Birdwatching 26/12/10

December 26, 2010

The Christmas break provided more birdwatching opporrunities than I’d expected. On Christmas Eve morning, my first glance out of the back window of my mum’s house revealed three birds up in the trees beyond her wall and a quick scout with the bins was rewarded by another tribe of those unforgettable, unmistakeable Waxwings (Bohemian Waxwings, to give them their full name). And they do look rather bohemian with their rouged faces, dashing flashes of white, red and yellow on the wings and of course, that jaunty crest. I’ve been happily changing the desktop backgrounds on all computers I come across to Waxwing images for the past couple of weeks.

The flock, when they all turned up, numbered around 35. Going outside for a closer look, I heard the birds’ distinctive, light trilling and saw four perched on a neighbouring house’s TV aerial. An even closer encounter followed when they moved to the roof of my mum’s house, before two of the birds hopped onto the roof to eat snow from the tiles.  I was starting to feel like the Pied Piper of Waxwings by this time.

As the birds had been attracted by the red berry-bearing tree behind the house, it was only natural to expect thrushes, but I didn’t expect a ‘full house’. Four Redwings were present for most of the day, along with a single Song Thrush, briefly a Fieldfare and then right at the death, a Mistle Thrush put in an appearance and gobbled some berries.

The Waxwings haven’t reappeared since and there are only a few berries left, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to return now.

I then went off to my dad’s place in more rural Swanwick.  His house backs onto farmland and the family keep well-stocked feeders in the spacious back garden. A quick scan of the garden didn’t turn up anything out of the ordinary, but my stepmum later alerted me to a star visitor on a feeder, a Great Spotted Woodpecker. I hadn’t seen a female before, so was initially confused by the lack of a bright red crown.

My dad and I then walked two boisterous Jack Russells over the back fields, but in fading light, didn’t turn up much, except for a tribe of Fieldfares, several Redwings and a pair of Meadow Pipits.

This morning, I was up early (by my standards, but certainly not by my dad’s) for another walk across the fields. Redwings were everywhere.  I turned off the main path and into woodland. Emerging from under a bridge, I was greeted by a bold-as-brass Robin, which I stopped to whistle at. I then spotted a male Bullfinch and a Treecreeper scurrying and lingering briefly on the underside of a branch, before taking wing (watching them walk around on the trees, it doesn’t seem right that they can fly).

Moving further into the woods, I had a Kestrel overhead and a Wren flitting in tufts of snowy grass around me; zooming past me it stopped briefly to ‘scold’ in buzzing tones, before disappearing under another grassy tuft. Wrens are so charismatic, such tiny little hyperactive things. It’s incredible that there are actually smaller British birds – the kinglet species, Goldcrest and Firecrest. It also surprises me to learn that the Wren is the most common British breeding bird, but then, as a city dweller, I spend much more time in the company of Magpies, Black-Headed Gulls and Feral Pigeons.

Refreshingly, in all my time in Swanwick, I never saw one Feral Pigeon, although a colony of about 250 Woodpigeons were in residence on the slightly thawed farmland as I walked towards the woods.

Birdwatching, 20/12/10

December 21, 2010

This year, I have rekindled an interest which stretches back to my childhood by doing quite a lot of birdwatching. Close to where I live is a nature reserve, which includes two Water Parks (Chorlton and Sale), woods and grassland, which attracts an admirable variety of birdlife.

So far this year, I have managed to identify 75 different species of birds, mostly but not all at the Chorlton nature reserve.  Any committed birdwatcher would be able to tell you a year list of 75 means I’ve not seen quite a few reasonably common residents and visitors, but with the help of the authorities on the Manchester Birding website, I’ve managed to see at least a couple of species not regularly seen in this part of the country.

This week, however, I saw something extraordinary in the middle of Chorlton itself. Generally, if you’re walking down Manchester Road, you’re unlikely to see anything more exotic than a Goldfinch, but Friday and Saturday were a little different.

I was off work on Friday and somewhat off-colour, having stayed up late after playing a King Tree & The Roots gig to watch English wickets clatter Down Under.  By 1pm-ish, I had managed to rouse myself to the extent that leaving the house didn’t seem like total folly. I had also checked my emails, which included a message on the County Bird Forum to say that Waxwings had been sighted at Stockport Train Station that morning.

As the picture shows, the Waxwing is an extremely handsome bird and one not normally found this far west in Britain at all.  However, the severity of the winter has forced this Scandinavian native to migrate in much larger numbers than usual, a phenomenon known as an irruption.

Over the past month, Bird Forum members had listed sightings in various town centres – Wigan, Bolton, Stockport – so when I saw a plump-looking, greyish bird sitting in a tree on Manchester Road, my interest was aroused. It turned out to be a Goldfinch, which was sitting grumbling away with its mate, but I started to look up in the trees with far more interest than usual.

I saw a Mistle Thrush wheeling around on manoeuvres, which piqued me further, as sightings of Waxwings are generally accompanied by reports of grumpy Mistle Thrushes attempting to see the Viking intruders off their territory.

I went back home with milk, The Independent and so on, but my mind was made up to go for a walk later in the afternoon, Despite the cold, it was sunny and I needed fresh air.  The Bird Forum reported a Short-Eared Owl at the Chorlton nature reserve, so I decided I might as well take a stroll that way and see what I could see.  But first, I figured, it wouldn’t harm anything to take the binoculars and have a quick wander down Manchester Road, in the direction of the Mistle Thrush’s patch.

As I walked up towards Chorlton Library, I saw three dark silhouettes alight in the tree directly outside. Starlings, I was convinced, but I carried on walking in that direction. A few seconds later, I figured I might as well take a look, just to confirm that they were Starlings. They were – but miraculously, a tribe of Waxwings were sitting on the branch below. It was one of those golden moments and it took a second look to convince myself that I wasn’t going insane.

I got closer and became gradually apparent that there were lots of them. Once I’d finished shaking my head, grinning broadly, cackling to myself, ringing my Better Half and texting Phil, I started to count the Waxwings. I got to 20 before a few flew away.  The whole tribe then quickly disappeared over the school playground next to the library, to be replaced in the tree by a heavy mob of six Mistle Thrushes, the most I’ve ever seen in one place.

As I checked on the identity of all the thrushes, a gentleman approcahed me to ask if I was a birdwatcher and if so, was it possible that he might have seen a woodpecker in Whalley Range. I told him it was.

The next day, Saturday, was Christmas Shopping day, but when my Better Half and I walked up towards the library, I heard the light, gentle trilling of the tribe again.  I ran back home through the snow and ice for my binoculars, convinced that TBH should see this – fortunately, the birds were still there when I trotted back; and of course, TBH was delighted with them. How could anyone not be?

A passing couple with an ornithological interest came over and took a look through my bins and we all had a great view of the flock, which on this occasion was monitored by only one speckled thursh, which sat hunched rigidly, outnumbered and unable to dislodge the intruders.

I’ll post up my year list when we get to 2011 (who knows, I might get to add to it before then) and file updates when I see anything of interest.  Highlights of the year are probably Scaup, Tree Pipit, Little Egret and best of all, the Waxwings – but I’ll say more on all this another time.