Sunday, 25 January 2015

Bosley Reservoir

With a couple of hours to spare earlier in the week I headed over to Bosley Reservoir with the camera, the forecast was mixed but initially the sun was shining, with some snow and ice still remaining it was cold, but a crisp, beautifully still day. Bosley Reservoir is managed by the Canal and River Trust, another location in East Cheshire popular with birdwatchers, anglers and walkers. It is a large reservoir on the outskirts of the Peak District, fed by the surrounding hills, and originally created to feed the Macclesfield Canal Network, particularly the well-known Bosley locks – a flight of 12 locks which lower (or raise, depending on how you look at it) the canal by 120 feet over the course of just over one mile.
Bosley Reservoir, from Western side, looking Southeast towards the Peak District

Heading through to the reservoir from the village of Bosley, moving further away from the houses, the chirrups of House Sparrows and the whistles, buzzes and squeaks of Starlings gave way to the sounds of woodland alive with birds, Robins sang as did Blue and Great Tits,  safely tucked away in huge Hawthorn trees. Blackbirds scolded, informing anything that hadn’t already noticed that an intruder – me – was in their midst. 
Telling me off - a tiny Wren
Wrens scolded also - their loud churring alarm call, like their song, belying their tiny size. Hearing the familiar call of ‘Chiswick’ I knew that Pied Wagtails were present, and after a little more listening and searching, sure enough scuttling to and fro on the ice at the water’s edge, in between submerged roots, tail wagging, was a Pied Wagtail.

What I could see of the huge reservoir of water initially looked fairly quiet, three Tufted Ducks – a female flanked by two males swam out towards the centre, and Mallards could be seen hugging the ice-free edges on the far side of the reservoir. 

Female Goosander (taken by Nick Stacey)
My attention was drawn to the distant sound of the flapping and splashing that precedes take off as two male Goosanders took to the air. I have seen these beautiful birds at several reservoirs but always at a considerable distance away. They are a diving duck, one of the three species of 'sawbill' seen in the UK, (the other sawbills being the Red-breasted Merganser and the rare Smew), so called because of their long serrated bill which allows them to catch and keep hold of their fish prey. Many thanks to Nick Stacey for letting me use his lovely photo of a female Goosander showing those wonderful 'teeth'.  

The sharp calls of a Coot pierced the cold air while the bird kept out of sight this time, whilst a Great Crested Grebe, still in winter plumage, dived in the centre of the reservoir.

Still very much alive - tree rooted in icy water
A partially submerged tree with its roots in the ice I thought might make an interesting subject to photograph - whether alive or not in its icy habitat I wasn't sure at first, though looking more closely, what I presumed to be flower buds were starting to grow. (I will check back in a few weeks to see what is it, my ID skills of leafless trees in winter being sorely lacking!)  

Walking on ice - a Meadow Pipit
Small brown birds with flashes of white in their wings and tail feathers in flight were Meadow Pipits. Trying my best not to end up in the icy water as I made my way through the tussocky grass and brambles (nature's trip-wires!) I tried to get within photographing distance of the Meadow Pipit (reminding myself of the instructions given to the kids doing the Big School's Birdwatch on safely using binoculars last week - i.e. to not walk whilst holding them up to their eyes, applied just as much to me with a camera). 

Often dismissively referred to as one of several 'little brown jobs', viewed closely they are beautifully patterned little birds, and whilst pipit identification can seem like the stuff of nightmares, in the winter in the UK, there are only really two pipits likely to be seen - Meadow and Rock. (Of our other two regularly seen pipits, the Tree Pipit is a summer visitor, the Water Pipit is a very uncommon winter visitor (only 100-200 individuals) generally seen in East Anglia and Southern England.) Rock Pipits tend to keep to rocky coastal areas and have dark grey (rock) coloured legs, and a greyer appearance overall, Meadow Pipits have warmer colouring, with pinkish legs and a pale bill. At this point the light was quite dull, and being in the shade made getting a reasonable photo that much harder, but the one above at least gives enough detail to show the features that identify the bird as a Meadow Pipit.

Playing spot the difference again - a Common Gull amongst the Black-headeds

Mute Swan
I went back again later in the week to see if I could get better photos of a Meadow Pipit, however although I heard them and saw the flashes of white, it wasn't to be. Instead I settled for playing spot the difference again with the gulls that were much more apparent this time - I had arrived much later in the day, and the gulls were getting ready to settle and roost on the water. Two Swans I hadn't seen previously swam gracefully past by the water's edge, aware of but unconcerned by my presence. 

Swan Mussel
Being about 50 miles from the nearest coast, a bivalve shell was an unexpected find - I had heard of freshwater mussels and clams, but have never found one. I also posted the photo to my Flickr account to try to find an ID, having had no luck myself, and have since been informed that this is a Swan Mussel (Anodonta cygnea), a large species of freshwater mussel.
As I was leaving, a Robin singing his heart out silhouetted against a colourful sunset was a great reminder that spring is just around the corner and a lovely way to finish my visit to this reservoir.
Singing into the sunset - a Robin

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dates for the diary - RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 24-25 Jan 2015

The world's biggest wildlife survey, the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch is now in its 36th year. Last year alone about half a million people across the UK took part counting an incredible 7.2 million birds. This year's event takes place this weekend - 24/25 January, people are asked to count the numbers of different types of birds and other wildlife they see in one hour of watching in the garden (or other location) over the weekend, and then submit these results to the RSPB. The results from the survey give a good overall picture of how our garden birds are faring, their populations in turn being a good indicator of the health of the wider countryside. 

Further information and details of how to take part at  

The results of 2014's survey showed the following 'top twenty' birds - those most frequently reported in gardens; House Sparrow, Blue Tit, Starling, Blackbird, Woodpigeon, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Great Tit, Collared Dove, Robin, Magpie, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Feral Pigeon, Greenfinch, Jackdaw, Coal Tit, Carrion Crow, Wren and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

We were lucky to have this Song Thrush as a regular visitor to our old garden. Sadly their numbers are in serious decline (currently a red-listed species) and they weren't amongst the 20 most reported garden birds in BGB 2014

Long-Tailed Tit
One of the first things to be done in our new garden was getting some bird feeders up. Our neighbour has a fantastic bird feeding station in place, and (in a slight spirit of friendly competition!) we now also have a good selection of feeders containing different foodstuffs set up to try and tempt a few birds 'through the hedge'. It will be interesting to see the differences in types and numbers of birds that we see this year being in a new garden with different surroundings.

Our last garden was also in the suburbs but backed onto a small area of woodland with open countryside close by so we used to get a wide variety of birds that you would associate with those habitats. Great-Spotted Woodpeckers and Nuthatches and Treecreepers (the latter never on the feeders), Blackbirds and Song Thrushes were all regularly seen and occasionally Redwings in the winter feeding on cotoneaster berries. 

Blue Tit
Plenty of smaller birds were also regular visitors that featured in our previous Big Garden Birdwatch submissions - Great/Blue/Coal and Long-Tailed Tits, Dunnocks, Robins and small numbers of House Sparrows. Of the finches Chaffinches were regular visitors, the occasional Bullfinch and Goldfinch, and the even more (or should that be less?) occasional Brambling. Woodpigeons and Collared Doves would make regular appearances, and we would also see a good selection of corvids including beautiful Jays, large Rooks (that broke more than a few small tree branches trying to reach a fat ball feeder!), Jackdaws (that would nest in the chimney - so we didn't use the fire) and Magpies. Occasionally a Sparrowhawk would shoot through sending all the others literally flying (even Rooks would make a quick exit which I found surprising, though as a flocking bird they are less aggressive than other more solitary corvids and as such don't take their chances).  


Male Kestrel - a surprise visitor (taken through window)
On one occasion a Kestrel caused upset to the smaller locals by making quite an abrupt (crash?) landing in the garden and staying on the ground for 15 or so minutes before flying away. (I'm not sure what had happened there but just when I was about to go out and check if there was something wrong, he flew up and away apparently fine.) 

Another bird that we had as regular winter visitors to the garden, (and featured in our BGB records) were Pheasants, sometimes lots of them! One winter I counted at least 15 individuals visiting the garden in what tended to be single sex groups. One bird in particular, a large male, became quite tame and would run towards the french doors we had if I was spotted in the kitchen and would take bread, seed, suet pellets etc. from only a few feet away (of course he became a personal favourite!). I'm opposed to pheasant shooting (and any other variety of killing for fun/entertainment for that matter) so was quite happy for our garden to be a relative safe haven for the pheasants that managed to evade the guns.

Male Pheasant - this individual was incredibly tame

RSPB Big Schools' Birdwatch

In addition to the Big Garden Birdwatch there is also the RSPB's Big Schools' Birdwatch (BSB) which this year started on the 5th Jan and continues until the 13th Feb. Similarly to the Garden Birdwatch, this involves counting the numbers of different types of birds (as well as other wildlife) seen in one hour of birdwatching but undertaken within the school environment. 

The local RSPB Wildlife Explorers group have been busy at local schools running BSB sessions (though any school can take part). Starting by giving the children a little bit of background of what the RSPB stands for and does, children were given information on identifying birds and how to count them for the survey (all suited to their age groups), before being shown how to safely use binoculars and then going outside to see what they could see. I helped out at one of these sessions earlier in the week and despite fairly cold and grey weather, a great time was had by all - the kids really relishing the chance to get outside and see what they could spot - a great success with a large number of birds counted! 

The totals counted just at this one school were as follows;

Blackbird x1, Black-headed Gull x52, Blue Tit x1, Canada Goose x185 (a possible record breaker???), Carrion Crow x2, Collared Dove x3, Dunnock x1, Goldfinch x2, Greylag Goose x8, House Sparrow x8, Magpie x3, Robin x1, Pied Wagtail x1, Rook x11, Song Thrush x1, Starling x32.

The view from the playing fields showing some of the 185 Canada Geese counted

More information on the Big Schools' Birdwatch at

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A visit to Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB reserve

Taking my chances with the forecast I headed over to Burton Mere Wetlands on Monday - the alternative to having a day out with the camera being to unpack yet more untouched boxes from our house move... it didn't take long to decide between the two! Having been to this reserve previously, I knew that a lot of the birds would be a reasonable distance away from the hides and that it was a day for 'the big lens', a Sigma 150-500 zoom lens which I bought last summer - a lens of which I'm very fond, but don't use nearly as much as I should because frankly, it's heavy, and in some places feels a little conspicuous!

The reserve is managed by the RSPB and is renowned for its fantastic habitats for wetland as well as woodland birds and other wildlife. Hides and viewpoints look out across the reedbeds, wet grassland and fens, and trails take you through woodlands, and past old fishery pools, reedbeds and arable fields which have been planted to attract birds and other wildlife. 

View from Marsh Covert hide

Looking out across the wetlands from a hide close to the reception building was the sight of hundreds of Lapwings, the air filled with the sounds of their other-worldly calls. As birds whose numbers have suffered significant declines making them currently a red-listed species, it was wonderful to see so many here. Amongst them were good numbers of Golden Plover, also Redshank and Dunlin, and a selection of Gulls (mostly Black-headed that I could see). 

Male Teal
In the nearer pool tiny Teals, the males with their colourful heads, and their calls like toy whistles mingled with Shoveler, Coot, Moorhen and Mallard. The Water Rails known to skulk in the reedbeds near the visitor centre evaded me once again. 

From the calm and entirely out of the blue, almost as one the Lapwings took flight, something having disturbed them, though it wasn't immediately clear what. From nowhere four Curlews flew directly overhead and away, calling as they went. (There was a bit of a mismatch between the speed of the Curlews and my reactions - the photo below being the best of a pretty bad bunch!) 
Spooked - Lapwings and friends take flight
Leaving the scene and nearly the frame!
Moments later the likely reason for the disturbance became clear as a beautiful female Hen Harrier appeared in the distance. For a few memorable moments, probably no more than a minute or two, I watched as she floated low over the grassland, scanning for prey and occasionally dropping down in pursuit of some unfortunate creature. Only the second time I have knowingly seen one of these incredible raptors, my sightings of these birds otherwise restricted to pictures in reports of depressingly predictable tales of persecution. With the equally predictable lack of associated prosecutions.
Female Hen Harrier (quite a distance away!)
Eventually harried by Crows, she disappeared out of sight again. This was all too far away for anything approaching a good photo (at least for me and my lens - 500mm at full stretch), but in the photo above you can just about make out the white above the tail (the 'rump') which distinguishes her from other harriers, and also the long barred tail which gives female and juvenile Hen Harriers their nickname of 'ringtail'.

Bank Vole
Heading back across to other side of the reserve I heard the familiar scurrying and scuffling in the undergrowth generally meaning one thing - voles.  Usually at this point I will search in vain for a tiny creature that has long since made itself scarce, but on this occasion I hung around and scanned the undergrowth, and then scanned again. Skillfully keeping him or herself firmly in the shade of the brambles I finally found the tiny vole munching on leaves and managed to grab a handful of photos before he/she disappeared again, the 150-500 lens feeling ridiculously out of proportion photographing this tiny mammal less than 2 metres away from me.

As well as the abundant natural food available in the surrounding fields, there are a number of bird feeders - great for observing woodland birds up close. 

I stood and watched at some of these feeders as various birds including Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Blue, Great and Coal tits came and went either at, or under the feeders, some perching for long enough to me to take their photo, like the female Great-Spotted Woodpecker clutching at the peanut feeder, the Nuthatch who gave him/herself away with calls (like someone whistling to get your attention), and  Goldfinches with their pretty twittering calls and eye-catching flashes of colour.

A brief stop in the Marsh Covert hide was quiet in comparison with other areas of the reserve on this occasion, however in the far distance two female Stonechats could be seen. 

A day out with 'the big lens' left me with ever so slightly achy arms, but delighted to have come back with the memory of seeing one of our most beautiful (yet sadly and needlessly persecuted) birds of prey - a remarkable start to the New Year! 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Notes from Redesmere

Redesmere, viewed from Northern end
Some time off work over the Christmas holidays has allowed me time for some visits to a great spot for watching wildlife locally this week, and after a busy couple of months it has been great to get back out with the camera again. Redesmere, situated in East Cheshire close to the village of Siddington, is popular with birdwatchers, photographers and families alike. 

Canada x Greylag goose

The car park is adjacent to the southern end of the mere from where many visitors feed the large numbers of Mallard ducks and Black-headed gulls (the latter particularly in the wintertime). Many people are happy to stay and watch the birds from the parking area but it is also possible to walk around to the mere's  Northern side, and there are plenty of interconnecting footpaths in the area.

The arrival of 'person with bread' is greeted with a cacophony of honks, quacks and squawks as the more confident and familiar birds jostle to get the offerings thrown their way, the gulls flying up to catch bread in mid-air. Mute Swans mix with Mallard and Tufted ducks, Greylag and Canada geese (and an individual that looks to be a Canada/Greylag cross), Coot and Moorhen, there are several birds which look like they could have escaped (or been released) from a nearby farm at some point - a flock (or perhaps gang would be more appropriate!) of large white geese, and Mallard hybrids, (considerably larger than a regular Mallard with interesting colour variations) of what sorts I can only guess (Cayuga perhaps?).

One of the resident Mallard duck hybrids
Looking a little more closely (and a little further away) and a number of less familiar birds are there to be seen. Amongst the hundreds of Black-headed gulls, are the occasional gulls you might more closely associate with the coast rather than inland sites - Herring gulls with their classic seaside (or Desert island disc) calls, a not so common 'Common gull', also a Lesser Black-backed gull - the mix of different types of gulls with their plumages differing between summer and winter as well as at different ages providing a challenging test of bird identification skills!  

Not so common... A Common Gull (adult winter plumage)

Flight formation... Goosanders (some distance away!)
With some guidance from a far more experienced bird watcher than myself and some good fortune, Wednesday's visit was particularly interesting with small flocks of both Shoveler and Goosander spotted in the distance in the middle of the mere, a female Goldeneye (I didn't see the male though he was also there somewhere), several Great Crested Grebes, and also good views of Grey herons, a Buzzard and Cormorants flying overhead. 

Nearby Rowan trees popular with one of our winter-visiting thrushes - Fieldfares, still had some berries but no birds present when I looked, though I was reassured when a flock flew over the mere that they were there after all, just not where I'd been looking for them. The familiar sound like an old-fashioned football rattle indicated that a Mistle thrush was present - heard but not seen this time. 

As with any large area of open water inland, different, sometimes unexpected species turn up from time to time. A Snow Goose and Red-breasted Goose have been photographed there recently (most likely to be escapes from wildfowl collections). In spring 2013, a beautiful Mandarin pair were in residence for a while, a real joy to see so close. 

Taken in March 2013, a male Mandarin duck in full breeding finery