Day -1 (Minus One) –
On Saturday 19th November, I set off to drive to Hull in order to meet up with Robert for our trip the next day. On the way, I stopped off at Hornsea Mere to attempt to see the Ring Ouzel and Richards Pipit that had been seen around there for the past couple of days. Within minutes I managed to fail utterly, as the field where both of these birds had been seen was off limits as some men wanted to shoot innocent geese in the face with exploding bullets until they were dead. Fair enough, I thought, I’m sure the geese deserve to be shot in the face by a ruddy faced, throwback of a man.
I instead set up my scope and looked across the mere itself. The sun was shining brightly, and was low on the horizon behind be, giving me excellent views of everything on the lake. Notable birds were 3 Red-Breasted Merganser, 6 Scaup, Slavonian Grebe & Black Necked Grebe. Not bad for half an hour
Day 1 –
After an ungodly set off time of 4:30am we made our way to Cumbria, accompanied by the soft soothing tones of The Prodigy.
Through a dense, unremitting fog I might add. Not fun to drive in.
We arrived at Sizergh Castle not long after 7am, with the intention of seeing Hawfinch. While driving up the road a Woodcock was flushed. After taking a place in the car park we gazed about were we had been told to see them. The trees were filled with noises unfamiliar to my dirty East Yorkshire ears. Around 5 Nuthatch could be seen flitting between the trees. Buzzards could be heard calling in nearby woods and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers were regularly seen amongst the usual tits and finches.
Probably one of the best car parks I’ve ever birded from, with the possible exception of the little one at the end of the road in Findhorn Valley in the Scottish Highlands. For readers unfamiliar with the bird fauna of East Yorkshire, I will point out that Nuthatches and Jay essentially do not occur in this area, so the first couple of hours watching Nuthatches and Jays, as well as Bullfinches, were a treat indeed.
At around 9am, more birders began to arrive with similar aims. As they talked amongst themselves, yours truly spotted a chunky finch fly into a low tree. I got several points for spotting the first Hawfinch of the day. (Two points, to be specific, as measured by our own personal bird spotting rules) Seconds after informing the locals, seemingly hundreds of people arrived. I can only assume they had been watching me from a distance, waiting for my obviously keen eyes to pick out the first bird. Not long after, James spotted another while the commoners fiddled with their tripods.
With Robert spotting a Hawfinch, and indeed the only Hawfinch at this point, I felt like I needed to get my finger out. So I spotted one in a beech at the other side of the car park. As far as I know, only two Hawfinches were spotted that morning, and they were by us, two beautiful, modest, humble lads from East Yorkshire. We rule. Also, I feel I must point out that Robert was only slightly exaggerating about the amount of people that turned up. He basically went “There’s a Hawfinch” and Boom! suddenly thirty birders with tripods were in the carpark looking at his bird.
After unsuccessfully attempting to extract a fiver from fellow birders for spotting the first hawfinch we set off.
Killington Lake was the next stop. It was a bit shit. Two more woodcock were seen, along with some crossbill-imitating woodpeckers. A horse tried to intimidate me.
We then popped over to Grisedale forest. It was also a bit shit. We found some nice mossy rocks near a river but that was about it. Those rocks could have been used for a tasteful nude photoshoot.
Walney Island was the next port of call. As we made our way up the road we spotted our first heron of the trip, taking the form of an urban Little Egret. Further up the road another white bird caught our eye. With a mix of foreshadowing and good guess work we had found a Leucistic Curlew. We did a quick lap of the east side of the reserve but saw nothing of amazing interest. We quickly headed into Barrow-in-furness for a warm meal and the Alan Partridge Audiobook.
Pretty chuffed with the leucistic Curlew. I love a good colour mutation, as well as any odd hybrid animals. Luckily this trip was to produce them in spades…. or at least two more ‘odd’ animals after this Curlew.
Day 2 –
We awoke from our slumber sort of refreshed. I’d slept about sixteen minutes all night, in marked contrast to Robert’s thirty-six hours. We stretched, yawned, and drove down to the South Walney car park. Our plan was simple, find a member of staff or a regular birder, and ask them about any interesting birds that we should be looking out for, then go find them. Unfortunately this plan was thwarted immediately by the lack of any other living soul in the area. Instead we decided just to walk around and see what we could find.
Robert snapped into action like a sleeper agent being activated, and within seconds of setting off had spotted a pretty sexy male Stonechat sat on a rock near the path. We continued along, stopping in hides as we went, until we ended up in a hide that overlooked a small bay-like area. Here Robert spotted Knot and Ringed Plover, as well as an undoubted highlight for me in the form of a flock of Emperor Geese. An introduced species, the geese have been living on and around the island for at least ten years, and are the result of an escape from a wildfowl collection on Piel Island. They have bred on and off during that time, and in the most recent edition of Christopher Lever’s book, ‘The Naturalized Animals of Britain and Ireland’ he states that the flock was at least 21 birds strong at one point. On our visit we saw a maximum of ten of these stunning birds, and I for one hope that they persist here for years to come. My heart aflame with joy, I surveyed the herd again, this time taking note of the group of Barnacle Geese accompanying the Emperors. It was at this point that Robert outshone his previous blinding brightness. “Isn’t that a hybrid one?” he queried. He was right. Between the the flock of Barnacles and the flock of Emperors there was a single, odd looking goose. Superficially, it looked like an Emperor, but with black speckling on the white neck, a very dark breast, verging on black, muddy yellow legs, and a white arse. Classic Emperor x Barnacle hybrid, and a new species for my hybrid list. Perhaps the reason it stood between the two flocks was to symbolise its mixed heritage, or, more likely, it was a coincidence. Some pictures of hybrid Emperor x Barnacle geese can be seen here, but are not of the South Walney individual.
We continued our traversion of the island. The next hide showed us a healthy number of Red Breasted Merganser along with Eider and Goldeneye. Thrushes could regularly be seen flitting between bushes. We then walked up the west side of the island which faced the Irish Sea. Some unusual crows were mucking about behind us. As they drew closer they showed themselves to be a pair of Raven, A lifer for myself. Further along the beach two largish raptors showed themselves briefly over a dune. We raced up to get a better view while trying to avoid the numerous sloppy bovine plops. We both failed eventually. Further along the beach the raptors chose to reveal themselves as peregrines. We made our way back to the car where we found a knowledgeable looking man. After James pumped him for information, we set off again. We made a b-line for the Long-Tailed Duck, finding the Stonechat on the way again. After seeing the cheeky sea duck we went in search of a Water Pipit. In retrospect I’m sure they are fictitious birds, like phoenix and Merlin. Driving around the island looking in various flooded fields we took a detour to a beach.
Moving to the shore, Turnstones could be found feeding amongst the exposed seaweed. Amongst the periwinkles, James found this fish in the a small rockpool. It appears to be a goby of the Pomatoschistus genus but I’m sure James will prove me wrong.
Oddly enough, in my four years of thorough rockpooling at Scarborough, I have never actually found a Sand Goby or a Common Goby, which are what this picture possibly depicts. They often occupy areas of lower salinity, such as saltmarshes and the lower reaches of estuaries, which may explain why I’ve not seen either at Scarborough. Anyway, this fish was too small to identify it conclusively as either Sand or Common Goby. Aww.
After grappling with menacing sea beasts we moved up to check the strand line for any bits of dead animal. An impressive haul of 32(?) sharks eggs were found. At least. I’ll have to get a picture of the box-full in my car.
After failing utterly at finding the Water Pipit, we decided to head to Leighton Moss, thinking we might be able to get a good hour or so of birding in there before nightfall. As it turned out, an astounding piece of luck and judgement resulted in us stumbling across a lovely birding spot. Before heading to Cumbria, I had looked for some target species to aim for. Whilst checking the deer that occurred in the county, I discovered a mention of a place called Leven’s Park, a stately home, gardens and deer park – and the deer park was home to a population of black, or ‘melanistic’ Fallow Deer. Unfortunately, I had dismissed this as a site to visit, as the website said that the price to enter house and gardens was £11.50 per adult. Madness. Strangely, the closer we got to Leighton Moss, the more signs we saw for Leven’s Park. Indeed, it became apparent that the route the satnav was following would take us right past it. I could stand it no longer. I turned to Robert, and said the noblest of sentences; “Maybe would should stop nearby and see if we can scope the deer through the park boundaries or something?”. Robert concurred, and our plan was go. Moments later we saw the entrance for the hall, and I pulled the car in. Just inside the driveway was a man raking leaves. Feeling brave, I asked him about the deer and deer park. Amazingly, it transpired that, whilst the house and gardens cost a kidney to enter, the deer park was free and had a footpath through it. I could have fistbumped him with joy, but I didn’t want to.
Minutes later we found ourselves walking into the deer park. Geographically, the park was a lot longer than it was wide, and was split neatly in two by a river that ran the length of it. The deer can just wade across the river as they see fit, but people can only visit both sides of the river by leaving the park and entering through another gate at the other side. There are also very decent numbers of mature Oak and Beech throughout the park, which one would expect would be good for wildlife. The first bird we saw was a first-winter male Goosander sat on the bank of the river. Robert then spotted a small group of Melananistic Fallow Deer on the other side of the river, giving decent binocular views. In addition to the Fallow Deer, the park is also grazed by what appeared to be Bagot goats, but my knowledge of domestic goat breeds is patchy at best.
As we continued through the park we started seeing more of the black Fallow Deer on both sides of the river, occasionally getting quite close and very pleasant views. We were also pretty much tripping over Jays, and Robert spotted a Buzzard fly out of tree and off along the river. The banks of the river were higher the further we walked along, and soon we were looking down on the river. It was at this point that a Dipper was spotted flying along the river, before dropping in and swimming around almost directly below us. Lovely.
To be continued.