15 February 2009

One for the memory bank...

Over the years many birding moments have left a lasting impression on me - reaching the summit of the Cairngorms and seeing my first Ptarmigan, watching Golden Eagles soar over a remote Scottish hillside, finally tracking down the Cedar Waxwing in Nottingham, helping with the nest protection scheme for Hen Harriers on a Derbyshire moorland and also the Woodcock that I "rescued" at work back in October '07. There are many, many more but those spring to mind without even thinking about it. Yesterday, I added another memory - our trip to Martin Mere.

The day started off with a little bit of a scare - we overslept by almost half an hour - but thankfully we still arrived in Derby in plenty of time to catch the coach to Lancashire. For the first hour or so of the day I was in a complete daze and didn't know whether it was Monday, Wednesday or Christmas Day! I did manage to pull myself around in time to locate the pair of Peregrine that have made Derby Cathedral their home, whilst we waited for the coach - species number 85 on my 2009 "10-Mile List".

The trip north went off without any real problems even if it was a little chilly. A couple of overhead heater vents on the coach refused to blow hot air and instead blasted the rear half of the coach with air drawn straight from outside! A real pain in the neck - literally! The driver, to his credit, did stop the coach briefly not too far into the journey and did manage to reduce the problem to some extent.

Once at Martin Mere the first little task was to locate Nic (Birdnerdblog) whom we had arranged to spend the day with. A couple of text messages were sent back and forth and just a short while after our coach pulled into the car park at the reserve Nic arrived too. Once the formalities of our first ever meeting were out of the way Lynda, Nic and myself set off for a quick look around the captive bird collection - well, someone has to go and feed the Nenes! Yes, I did do my share of the feeding too! Those Nene are just too cute to ignore.

Having spent the best part of an hour in the "tame" part of the reserve we headed off in search of the wild birds, the real reason for our visit. The first stop was Swanlink Hide, the hide with the best overall view of the wild swans. From here we were able to enjoy close views of the Whooper Swans that help make Martin Mere such an important winter site. I didn't even attempt a count but I'd estimate that there were at least 1200 Whoopers on the mere with more out in the surrounding fields, a superb sight.

The mere itself held 1000's of birds - Greylag Geese, Shelduck, Wigeon, Mallard, Pintail, Pochard and Lapwing were all present in large numbers. Smaller numbers of Teal were also located along with 8 Oystercatcher, 1 Golden Plover (strange to see just one), 1 Curlew that took flight with the Lapwing, 1 Common Redshank and around 25 Ruff. Lynda also picked out a couple of Common Buzzard away in the distance that were to give much closer views later in the day. A Greater Black-backed Gull provided us with a few moments of rather gruesome entertainment as it fed on the remains of a rather unfortunate bird. Just what the bird had once been I cannot say as the gull had already reached the dessert stage of its meal - there was little more than a skeleton left!

The feeding station at the Janet Kear Hide was unusually quiet and we only paused there for a very short while. One or two Blue Tits, Chaffinches and Greenfinches were coming for food but that was about all - we moved on to the Harrier Hide. The open water in front of the hide held yet more Shelduck, a pair of Gadwell and a few Tufted Duck. Lynda was once again on form and located 3 male Shoveler that had tried to hide themselves away from view on the edge of a distant reed bed. I had hoped to see Peregrine from this hide but there was no sign. I did get a brief view of a Kestrel as it flew behind a line of trees.

A single Reed Bunting, the only one we saw all day, was at the feeding station near the United Utilities Hide and a Kingfisher was perched under a bridge near to the hide. The Kingfisher would have been one of the sightings of the day had it not been for the fact that it had chosen to hide ½ of its body from view behind some brambles! From the top of the hide we could see out onto the mere and also the surrounding fields - Pink-footed Geese showed well as did a pair of Stonechat. A Skylark was singing somewhere close to the hide but, try as I might, I couldn't locate it! Another birder in the hide overheard me asking about Bewick's Swan sightings and promptly pointed out the only one on the reserve to us! The Bewick's was, we were told, a bird know as Jenny that is now 20 years old. I wonder just how many miles that swan has covered on its migration flights to and from the UK over the years?

Next stop off was the Ron Barker Hide at the opposite end of the reserve. The walk around to the hide provided us with little more than some exercise but we did manage to add Dunnock and Tree Sparrow to the list of birds seen. A single Goldcrest was also heard. As usual, Ron Barker Hide was very busy and we had to make do with seats on the side of the hide that looked out over fields rather than open water. This didn't really prove to be much of an issue as we were able to see some great birds in the end! It also gave us a little room to get a bite to eat too! Love the pink flask, Nic!

The next hour or so turned into a bit of a raptor fest. First it was a male Sparrowhawk that put in an appearance. Soon after, an immature male Marsh Harrier was centre of attention. For a while the bird was watched hunting over the reed beds and then it suddenly dropped out of sight only to re-appear moments later carrying prey of some kind. The harrier did try and land in a small tree with its lunch but, unfortunately, it couldn't find a strong enough perch and so moved down onto the floor and out of sight. It did take to the air a while later, no doubt after eating its fill, and then continued to show well.

At least two Common Buzzard could be seen from the hide and this time gave much closer views. Lynda was yet again the one to pick out the best bird when she located a Merlin sat on a fence post a couple of fields away. This, it turned out, was a new species for Nic and she was just a little pleased with the find. Just a few minutes later Nic had her second Merlin sighting when another bird flew past the hide much closer than the first! Just like buses, you wait ages for one and then two come along! A couple of Ringed Plover were new birds for the day here as were the 3 Stock Dove that were sat on the roof of an old barn a little way away from the hide.

The last hour and a half of our day was spent in the Raines Observatory were we watched the wild bird feed. Watching the feed is something that I've not bothered with for years now but I must admit that yesterday it was one of the highlights of the day. It was great to be able to just sit and actually watch the 1000's of swans, geese and ducks at such close quarters - even the Ruff came close to us towards the end of the feed. The commentary from the chap doing the feed was also very interesting and explained just why at least 6 of the swans were carrying radio transmitters on their backs. I had suggested it was so that birders could take control of the swans and race them up and down the mere! It turns out that it was so that the migration routes of the birds could be tracked! I like my idea better.

As the day was drawing to a close my mobile phone suddenly sprang into life with a text message, it was Mike letting us know that a Barn Owl was showing well from where he was on the reserve. Before I could even start to reply to his text Nic had spotted the owl hunting at the rear of the mere. For the next hour or so the Barn Owl continued to show well and must be in line for the "Bird of the day" award - although the Merlin just about beats it in my book.

So, that was Martin Mere. Maybe not a day with huge species counts - I logged 61 species - but a day full of great memories none the less. It was also rather refreshing to spend time with Nic who, I'm sure wont mind me saying, is much more of a "bird watcher" than a "birder". That alone made the day all the more enjoyable for me. I actually sat and watched birds yesterday without worrying about the less important things like species counts!

Nic... I'll be in touch about another trip your way soon. And if you can arrange it, Derbyshire has one or two places that are just about worth a visit too!

To read a MUCH better written account of the day visit... Birdnerdblog.

The swans gather before the feed.

The food is put out.

Spot the radio control swans!

The Shelduck move in.


  1. Nic (Birdnerdblog)15 February, 2009 21:50

    Great blog, Rich! So well written, much better than mine! And the photos are great too!
    But...erm..."bird watcher"?? Charming! Next you'll be calling me a "bird spotter" LOL!

  2. LOL! :-)

    Being a "watcher" is a GOOD thing! So much better than catching the twitching bug!

  3. Great account of whats sounds like a great day. Martin Mere is on my list of places to go, especially now! Thanks for another enjoyable read.