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.