Monday, 23 February 2015

Spring tides and hailstorms

This weekend offered another opportunity to see the spring tides at RSPB Parkgate near Neston. My grasp of the astronomy governing tidal cycles is painfully basic however these so-called spring tides are particularly high tides, considerably higher than the norm, and this can result in the resident wildlife being pushed in closer towards the promenade here, potentially giving much better and closer views as a result. These high tides aren't good news for the small mammals that make their homes in this tussocky marshland however, and being flushed from their homes by the incoming tide attracts the attention of many a predator - on a previous visit I had seen Short-eared owls, a Peregrine and Hen Harrier amongst others, though all at a considerable distance away.

I had already been informed (and knew from my previous experience) that these spring tides could be something of an all or nothing affair, with the height of the tide not the only predictor of how far the tide would actually come in (air pressure and wind speed and direction also playing significant roles). Having checked details beforehand on the RSPB Parkgate website for the predicted height and of course time of the high tide, I'd also reviewed the forecast including the wind speed and direction (20mph westerlies) and all looked set for a promising (if cold and bracing!!!) day. It would have also been a good day to take a tripod... but that remained at home. (The benefits of hindsight...)

Little Egret

Teal (and kayak - at 4/5C, rather him than me!)
With the tide making its way towards us slowly at first, we scanned the marsh. Hundreds of Redshanks could be seen - more than I've ever seen in any one place before. Amongst them, and overhead, gulls, mostly Black-headed were numerous, some of them with their breeding plumage of dark brown head feathers nearly complete. An occasional much larger gull, the Greater Black-backed, could be seen amongst them - the size difference making the former look quite tiny. Little Egrets are regulars on the marsh, and during a welcome splash of sunlight, one flew low across the marsh ahead of us. Grey herons struck their stately pose, patiently watching and waiting.    

Beautifully camouflaged in the marshland, Curlews called, and in an unusual moment of bravery, the distinctive shape of a Snipe could be seen in the open, albeit at a safe distance from the watching crowd. Good numbers of Teal flocked together, then took off as one, with two kayakers behind them looking the likely culprits. Talk of a Short-eared Owl in the distance traveled through the attendant birdwatchers like Chinese whispers and almost as one, scopes angled to the right, and in the far distance a 'SEO' could be seen amongst the hundreds of other birds in flight. (I'd love to be able to share a photo of this owl but sadly no-one including me would be able to tell now which of the darkened pixels in my photo represents it, the magnification power of my lens and  binoculars lagging sorely behind that of the scopes by which we were surrounded!) A Merlin which had been seen hunting earlier didn't appear while we were there as far as we could tell, though a nearby Kestrel was wonderful to watch instead. The tide which for a long time seemed to remain so far away seemed to suddenly quicken its pace until it reached the low sea wall in front of our feet where it could go no further, at least not this time.     

Distant, but definitely a Water Rail
With the tide slowly receding we walked further along on a pathway, with a golf course on one side, and the flooded Dee Estuary on the other. I was delighted to finally see a Water Rail - it's not that they're particularly uncommon, but they do have a tendency to be secretive and skulking and consequently can be hard to spot. 

Smaller birdlife abounded in the sodden tussocky grass in front of us. At first glance this appeared to be mostly Skylarks, perfectly camouflaged and almost invisible against their background. Amongst them were also Reed Buntings, and a wonderful flash of orange that was a male Stonechat which briefly stopped a few metres away. (It was at this point that I'd really wished I'd brought a tripod - being buffeted by the wind, and with the cold now really taking a grip, almost every photo I took of this lovely little bird was entirely out of focus, the one below being the least bad of them!)    

Male Stonechat

The approaching clouds looked increasingly ominous, and it seemed as good a time as any to start making our way back. What started as sleet soon turned to hail and my pace quickened to a camera-cuddling power walk until finally we reached the shelter of our car. The big plates of hot chips that followed shortly afterwards being wonderfully warming and after the [not in the forecast] hailstones, feeling entirely justified!

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