Friday 7th February was a very busy and frustrating day for me, commencing with waiting in the house for an errant courier to deliver something that was urgently required but that only arrived at lunchtime, then driving to Cirencester for new glasses and finally attempting to get my upgraded I-phone sorted out which resulted in yet more cursing and frustration when the darn thing just would not co-operate to my satisfaction. At times like this I find it is best to just walk away and then come back to the problem. Thankfully this ruse worked and I finally got the phone set up the way I wanted.
I needed some bird action desperately to compensate for my day of frustrations and a Laughing Gull at New Brighton, located on the northeast corner of the Wirral Peninsula by the Irish Sea, was just the answer. It would be a long drive north and some company would be nice so who better than the Clackmeister aka Keith Clack. I put in a call that evening and as usual Keith was more than happy to come with me at very short notice.
At the civilised birding hour of 8am on Saturday I drew up outside Keith's house in Witney on a gloomy morning, the kind of dull, grey morning that dampens your spirit with its depressing overtones and makes you question whether you really have made the right decision to get out of bed. In no time we were on the M40 and heading north, cruising around Birmingham and then onwards up the busy M6 on the long haul to the northwest until we turned off onto the quieter M56 and headed for Chester. As we were speeding ever northwestwards the weather improved as did our mood until, by the time we reached the M56, it was sunny and calm and we were in a jovial almost skittish mood. We passed the scarily monstrous chemical works at Widnes, displaying a formidable array of technology way beyond our comprehension, with a mass of pipes, weird looking structures and chimneys with vast spiralling columns of white smoke ascending vertically into the cloudless and windless sky. Eddie Stobart, of trucking fame, also had a huge depot right by the Motorway as we headed west. Once past the built up areas we then went through much more pleasant rural surroundings until we came to the coast and the wide esplanades, entertainment and shopping arcades and closely mown grassy expanses of New Brighton seafront.
It was only when we arrived that I realised I had been here before some four years ago, was it really that long, when I came to see another rarity, a Little Swift roosting on the window ledge of a block of upmarket seafront apartments just a few hundred metres down the road from our present location. Happy days and hopefully it would be the same today.
We drove further down the road into town and soon saw a cluster of birders to our left all lined up along a walkway called Kings Parade, part of a £60 million re-development scheme running between various modern food and retail outlets and the Marine Lake, a large lagoon with a series of joined pontoons floating in it. 'This must be it Clackers. Doors to manual!' After some bother we managed to find virtually the last available parking space on the esplanade and gathering body and soul together walked back to join the throng of not only birders, but shoppers and people just out to take the air, stoically trying to appear totally incurious about the assemblage of camouflage clothed men and a fortune in high class optics and cameras, all pointing at an innocuous pontoon floating in the lagoon.
Saturday morning Twitchers. The gull later landed on the pontoon parallel with the wall
The Marine Lake and some of the pontoons
As twitches go this one was possibly one of the most civilised. No mud, wind or rain to contend with, no long walk or long wait and any number of outlets literally within feet of us from which to purchase hot drinks, food or whatever took one's fancy. It certainly was not like this on North Uist!
I knew from reference to the internet that the pontoons were the Laughing Gull's resting place of choice but at first was unable to see it. A close packed huddle of around a hundred brown and white Turnstones with another fifty Common Redshanks, much greyer and standing taller within them, were roosting on the pontoons. A lone Sanderling, gleaming white like the surf on the shore stood out in front of them but where was the gull?
Some of the roosting Turnstones, the Sanderling and a Common Redshank
Then we found it, standing alone and some distance apart from the massed wader throng, its dull and dark grey upperparts almost matching the colour of the pontoon and making it surprisingly inconspicuous.
'Well that didn't take long Clackers'. 'No indeed old boy. Must be all of two minutes.'
Clackers triumphant having scoped the gull
We walked further along the walkway skirting the edge of the lagoon to get closer to the gull. We came to a stop in front of 'Chimichanga', a restaurant serving Mexican food. They even had tables and chairs outside, so if we had a mind to we could have had a coffee and watched the gull from there. We resisted the temptation but only just.
Discussions are currently airing on the internet about the age of the gull. It certainly is not an adult and to me looks to be a first winter but now in its second calendar year as it had much faded brown feathering on its wings, a scruffy apology for a black hood. and a black tail. The features that struck me were not so much its plumage but its long, dark brownish red beak, it really was striking and equally so were its long similarly coloured legs, the combination of long bill and legs giving it a somewhat rakish demeanour, but what a beauty it was. This is the fourth one I have seen in the UK and curiously all bar one have also featured on pontoons in various parts of the UK. Life's little co-incidences never cease to amaze. The exception was an adult subsisting on an endless supply of chips from McDonalds, in the unlikely surrounds of a car park by the Majdeski football stadium in Reading.
While I was taking pictures of the gull Clackers had meanwhile been scoping the roosting waders and found not one but nine Purple Sandpipers roosting with the Turnstones. They kept discreetly to themselves on the very edge of the flock. A delightful surprise for both of us. Every so often the whole huddle of waders would start hopping on one leg as first one roosting wader would start hopping to adjust its position which then had a cumulative effect on its neighbours and so on until the whole flock were at it.
I took more pictures and the gull stood looking around and not doing very much. Some people on previous days had said it was not well but it looked perfectly happy to me. We watched it for fifteen minutes or so and then it took to the air and flew off to the nearby adjacent beach. Most of our fellow birders and photographers followed and headed off for the promenade which overlooks the beach. We waited as we were reasonably certain it would return fairly soon. Patience is one virtue we have learned over the years and it usually brings dividends as was demonstrably shown a little later.
Life went on around us, a family on bikes parked their cycles by the railings and went in to the restaurant behind us while other people strolled by or just sat and watched. Across the road the funfair, bowling alley and various other seaside entertainments stood ready to receive all comers. I imagine this place must be heaving with humanity in the summer and it wasn't doing too badly just now. An enormous Morrisons was doing a roaring trade judging by the number of cars queuing to get in to the car park. Huge container ships came into the estuary and headed for the docks in Liverpool.
We fell into conversation with a local couple who told us about a couple of Snow Buntings just a mile south, frequenting the beach at the far end of the promenade and also about Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB Reserve on the Dee Estuary, which neither of us had ever heard about, that was further down the coast and where a Long eared Owl had been seen yesterday. Having seen the Laughing Gull so well and so quickly we now had time on our hands and it seemed such a waste to just go home without taking advantage of this local knowledge and information
They gave us directions and we made a mental note to not go immediately and try for these but wait until we had our fill of the currently absent Laughing Gull. We were now about the only birders left on the walkway as everyone else had decamped to the promenade overlooking the beach in search of the gull.
Speculating to Clackers on the exact current whereabouts of the gull I noticed a dark grey gull flying towards us. 'Keith its here, its back' and the Laughing Gull glided back over the lagoon but did not land on its earlier resting place on the more distant pontoon but came ever closer to settle on the pontoon literally a few metres below us and began to survey the scraps of bread and peeled prawns that had been thrown down, presumably by photographers and birders, to lure it in.
At times it was just too close for photography as it paraded up and down resolutely ignoring the bread but swallowing selected prawns at a prodigious pace. I prostrated myself across the walkway to get a better angle for photography hoping any one passing would just step over me. Whether they did or not I do not know, Who cares, it was now or never as I was unlikely to get such an opportunity again. The gull, looking like a leggy model on an exclusive catwalk paraded up and down selecting those prawns that took its fancy. Acting every bit the star that it was.
As I rose from the ground a birder asked me 'Well how many miles have you done in the Black Audi today?' I regret in the heat of the moment that I was so tired and excited at seeing the gull I neglected to ask his name so if you are reading this please accept my apologies and it was very nice of you to stop and speak to me! (I now know this was Ryan from Blackpool).
The absent birders and photographers finally caught up and joined us on the walkway and there was much pressing of camera shutters as we all went for that ultimate shot. Let's face it you could hardly fail and it was all great fun. The gull, finally replete, flew back to the more distant pontoon to stand amongst the throng of roosting waders. What an excellent start to the day.
'Well Clackers I guess we should go and try for the Snow Buntings or we could try for some breakfast?' There then came one of those moments where neither of us could make a decision as each of us was relying on the other to decide. Five minutes of equivocation passed and finally it was decided. Snow Buntings first and then something to eat. We returned to the Black Audi and headed back south along the wide esplanade road to the far end and the long expanse of sandy beach. It did not look good as there were many people out and about but on enquiring of two birders just leaving the beach we were assured that the Snow Buntings were still there and they pointed to two lone figures standing a few hundred metres away on the beach intently looking up the beach at the high tideline. 'That is where they are' they informed us.
The Beach.The Snow Buntings were on the sand just below the concrete shelf
A short walk brought us level with the Snow Buntings and in their charming unique way the buntings shuffled about inconspicuously amongst the dead seaweed. old gull feathers, bits of wood and straw finding unknown sustenance, although we noticed that seed had also been put down for them further along the beach.
They are the most delightful birds, always sought after by birders, with a pleasing aura about them and showing beautifully intricate plumage patterns. I always notice their buttercup golden bills as they nibble the seeds. The two buntings kept close together, showing little fear and as we left were still delighting birders and passers by alike.
Now it was around lunchtime and the whole area was seething with traffic and people. We drove back into town looking for a place to eat. I was by now flagging badly, feeling the combined effects of having had no breakfast and with a long drive already under my belt. The adrenalin of a twitch was a fast fading memory now, as tiredness and frustration at the traffic chaos all around us took over. Earlier we had noticed 'The Seaside Cafe' as we parked the car on our initial arrival and this famed establishment now looked a good bet to satisfy our hunger, so we endeavoured to find somewhere to park nearby. It was hopeless, cars were everywhere and every possible parking space was taken and worse the police were taking a keen interest in any transgressing motorists. Even the huge Morrisons car park was full. We went up and down the lines of parked vehicles and then up and down again. I was about to quit and head out of town when finally we found someone backing out of a space and took our turn to occupy it.
The Seaside Cafe, friendly, cheap and basic but obviously very popular, was busy and after a fried breakfast for Clackers and fish and chips for me, plus reviving tea, we both felt a whole lot better about the world. I googled Burton Mere Wetlands Reserve on my now all singing all dancing I-phone and got the postcode and we set off in the direction the Satnav instructed. A thirty minute drive brought us to the reserve and after a wrong turn we parked by a gate with other cars that overlooked a wide expanse of marshland but discovered we were in the wrong place for the Long eared Owl and the RSPB Centre.
Like a number of RSPB reserves, there is apparently some conflict with the local village, in this case Burton, about putting up signs directing people to the reserve. We have the same problem here in Oxfordshire with our RSPB Otmoor reserve. This seems particularly boneheaded on the part of the village residents as if they had clear signs they would not have cars going in the wrong direction, getting lost in their village streets and annoying them. Not putting up signs is not going to deter people from coming to the reserve which they are perfectly entitled to do anyway. Little England and small mindedness yet again rears its nasty little head.
A kindly couple from Newcastle directed us back up the road and following them we found ourselves in the busy RSPB Visitor Centre car park and entering the very modern wooden structure that is the Visitor Centre where we showed our membership cards and were 'clicked' in to the reserve. A volunteer showed us where to go for the owl. Naturally it was about as far from the Centre as possible so we set off with many others on a long march through the very large reserve, walking along boardwalks and then muddy tracks and then boardwalk again.
Part of the Boardwalk through the Reserve
I suppose that a Saturday afternoon with a major rarity just 'down the road' was bound to make the reserve busy but the number of people was phenomenal and most were intent on seeing the owl. Many children were there which was great and hopefully they too got to see the Long eared Owl and to marvel at it.
We finally got to the owl. There was no mistaking the location as under a hawthorn was clustered some twenty souls looking across a small brook at another hawthorn just the other side of the brook.
Owl groupies with Clackers in the foreground
In amongst the tangle of twigs and branches sat the Long eared Owl, eyes mainly shut as if to avoid looking at the constantly revolving personnel of admirers, although on a couple of occasions it did half open them.
Stoically facing us about half way up the tree, seemingly relaxed and wonderfully camouflaged, it was, for a Long eared Owl, highly visible and pretty close. Its long ears stood proud of its head and I could not fail to notice how large it really was.
There has of late been some horrific stories of photographers disturbing other Long eared Owls roosting at various places but thankfully there were wardens here to deter any 'over enthusiastic' birders or photographers so this owl was left in relative peace. It was still a struggle to find a sight line through all the twigs for the camera but by some judicious knee bending and neck contortions I found a way through the branches to get a half decent picture of most of it. There was a constant stream of people coming to see the owl and a similar constant stream of people leaving, all enthralled with their encounter with this magnificent bird.
We gave it thirty minutes and then commenced the long walk back to the Centre, birding as we went. There were a fair number of ducks but they were a long way out on the marshes. I heard a Spotted Redshank calling but we never saw it. Common Shelduck were feeding in the flashes with the odd Teal and Mallard whilst Lapwing and Wigeon flocks regularly rose up skywards in alarm but we never saw a raptor apart from a Common Buzzard and a Common Kestrel although a Hen Harrier had been seen earlier in the day. A lone Pintail drake with a head the colour of dark chocolate and creamy white breast preened on one of the small grassy islands and a huge flock of Canada Geese did their usual routine of honking loudly and causing a general commotion as they flew aimlessly around. Walking past a reed bed, now in the late winter consisting of just dead, buff stems the height of a man, a sharp insistent alarm call betrayed a Cetti's Warbler, dark brown and elusive as ever, allowing one glimpse as it scuttled like a rodent through the base of the reed stems.
We got back to the Visitor Centre and after spending ten minutes locating an elusive Great Spotted Woodpecker high in the trees around the car park we set off for home in a slowly fading light. A brilliant day of birding in an area much of which was little known to either of us until today but none the worse for that I say