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A Field Notebook
  Updated 1/1/70 0:00:00
Webmaster Colin Davies
Generator Blogger
Possible grey-bellied brant, Banks marsh

Preparations for our now imminentdeparture to Auscombined with a desire on my part to work as many hours as possible before we go have been somewhat all-consuming in recent weeks and have prevented me from doing much birding. However news of a possible grey-bellied Brant on Banks Marsh just north of Southport peeked my interest and with an unexpected free day today I decided to go and have a look.  Grey-bellied brant is a bit of an enigma, nobody really knows what it is or how to identify it, and even less people have actually seen one. Actually, that doesn't include me, I have seen grey-bellied brant before and it's already on my UK list having seen one at Dundrum, Northern Ireland about five years ago. For what it's worth, this blog post contains a few of my thoughts on the Banks Marsh bird.

I parked at Hesketh Out Marsh and walked west towards Old Hollow Farm until I came to the west gate at HOM. From here I could see the goose flock,  but they were very distant, perhaps a mile away on the marsh. However a quick look through the scope almost immediately revealed a brent goose, very black and white looking in amongst the pinkies, with gleaming white flanks. It was too far away to have any hope of assigning it to race, but surely that was it, I wasn't aware of any other reported brents in the area. Encouraged by this instant result I continued along the sea wall for another mile or so until I was beginning to think that I'd have been better off parking at Old Hollow Farm. The geese were still quite distant, about half a mile away I would estimate, and in the sunny periods there was an annoying heat haze, but this was about as good as it was going to get so I sat myself down and remained here watching the flock for about the next three hours. In that time, the bird showed better than the photos here would suggest and at times was quite a reasonable scope view.

I've put together the following notes, as ever these are just my ramblings based on very limited field experience and not intended to be the final word on brent or brant identification.

Over the past few years since around the time I saw the Northern Ireland bird I've put in many hours studying photos and researching the brents and especially grey-bellied brant.  To my mind, grey-bellied brant is more akin to pale-bellied brent, unlike black brant which fits better alongside dark-bellied brent. Pale-bellied and grey-bellied have a brownish hue to their backs and lower breast whereas black brant and dark-bellied have a black or dark grey hue.

In the latter species pair, the black / dark grey on the head, neck and upper breast extends onto the lower breast and belly with little or no contrast and continues between the legs and a fair way  beyond towards the tail. In the field the bird currently at Banks shows a distinct brownish hue and a decent contrast between the neck / upper breast and the back / lower breast.

Crucially, the dark areas on it's breast extend down towards the legs but stop in an almost straight line between the legs. This fits pale-bellied / grey-bellied rather than black brant / dark-bellied. Whatever this bird may be, it's certainly not a black brant or dark-bellied brent or any hybrid combination of those two races in my opinion.

What I can't rule out, because I don't have enough experience with them, is a pale-bellied x dark-bellied hybrid, which is probably the pairing which would produce the closest fit to grey-bellied.  If this is the offspring of such a pairing then it seems to have inherited more of the pale-bellied genes. The extent and shape of the dark belly between the legs does not fit dark-bellied, and the brown hue is more consistent with pale-bellied / grey bellied. Personally I think that this is a good contender for grey-bellied brant, but I'm still not sure how we could categorically rule out this hybrid pairing. Certainly not on the views I had of the bird.

There has been a probable grey-bellied brant with the pink-footed geese in Norfolk this winter and the pinks do move back and forth between Lancashire and Norfolk. Having looked at the photos from Norfolk it looks likely to be the same bird to me. In Norfolk the bird apparently showed much better and perhaps enough was seen on it to get it accepted and onto the British list. That being the case, the Banks Marsh bird only has to be considered the same bird in order to become the first accepted British record of grey-bellied brant. It's got to be worth a look while it's still in the area.

One of the highlights of the day were the numbers of white wagtails on the marsh. In one quick scan I counted 98.

There was a flock of about 35 avocets at Hesketh Out Marsh.

Eiders breed on the Ribble, but I'm pretty sure that this is a first for Hesketh Out Marsh for me.

I was pleased to come across two oil beetles on my walk back to the car. I think that this is violet oil beetle.
The grey willow at the bottom of the garden

At the bottom of the garden we have a self seeded grey willow tree which is probably now at it's full height of about 6m tall. It dominates the garden, it's a beautiful tree much nicer than the ornamental trees which adorn most other gardens in the neighbourhood, and at this time of year it has glorious yellow flowers which are an important source of pollen for early flying insects. It's a real joy to behold and good evidence if any where needed that you don't have to rip out all of the natives and replace them with aliens in order to have a beautiful feature in your garden. Not bad for a free gift from nature.

The last icy blast of winter

Spring might be all around us now, with 200 swallows and 1000 sand martins at Pennington Flash yesterday, and today there was a chorus of at least three singing willow warblers, 15 chiffchaffs, five blackcaps and three Cetti's warblers, whilst at other local sites today there were also little ringed plovers, yellow wagtails and common terns, yet even so, the bird of the day was a hang over from winter. The stunning yet often elusive adult Iceland gull was again in Warrington town centre and showed well on top of the roof of a retail unit. A beautiful bird, it really is brilliant white and has a smart red orbital ring. One of the best Iceland Gulls I've ever seen.

Woodpigeons bathing

I was working near Martin Mere today, so during a break took the opportunity to call in. The weather was pretty awful, but I still managed booming bittern, Mediterranean gull, barn owl and a few avocets. Perhaps best of all, I watched two woodpigeons bathing at close range on the car park. Really smart birds when you see them well, apart from preening and splashing around in the puddles, these birds habitually raised their wings and held them up for up to 30 seconds at a time. I assume it was some kind of bathing / cleaning ritual but I'm not really sure what they were doing.

An unfamiliar song

One of the unexpected pleasures at this time of year is hearing the unfamiliar song of redwings. There are plenty of these winter thrushes passing through our area at the moment on their way back north to their breeding territories in Scandinavia and perhaps a few in Scotland. Mossley Hall farm at Pennington Flash has held a decent sized flock all winter and today I found another flock of around 100 near Haydock. The woodland they were in was full of their song, a really special moment on a warm, sunny, early spring day.
Intertidal surveys
Foulney, Roa and Walney Islands
Sometimes in amongst a plethora of mundane surveys which are bread and butter in the life of the ecologist, I hit the jackpot and something special happens. A full two weeks surveying estuarine birds not only from the ground, but also from the air certainly falls into the special category. It may seem boring and repetitive at times and if I wasn't being paid to do it, I certainly wouldn't chose to sit in the same spot for two weeks through all weathers in the middle of winter to observe the movements of birds on an  estuary. However, given that I am here, it's a great opportunity to learn so much about the way in which the estuary works. and to watch the interaction of the birds with each other and with the tides.

Fortunately my day up in the helicopter coincided with the nicest day of the two weeks!

South Walney Nature Reserve
The views of Walney Island are just stunning from the air.

One of the first sandbanks to be exposed after high tide was right alongside my vantage point and the oystercatchers were always quick to exploit its wealth of feeding opportunities, often flying in excitedly, filling the air with their chattering calls and landing even whilst it was still covered in shallow water. As soon as a little more mud was exposed, the equally excitable and noisy wigeon which had been feeding on the saltmarsh over high tide, swam up the gully to the sandbank to join in the feeding frenzy.

Back to the mundane!

It's not all fun and games though, in fact it very rarely is! I've called this photo"The insanity of the ecologist". This is what nine days sitting in the same spot counting the same birds eight hours a day does to you. Watching the tide come in and the tide go out, wondering if perhaps this time will be different, but it never is. It doesn't matter if the sun is shining or the rain is pouring or the fog casts a dark blanket over the estuary, still I sit here and watch and wait and hope. Tonight I'll be back in the same room at the same hotel (room 101 would you believe) with 30 minutes free internet and basic telly, tomorrow I'll renew my lonely vigil. Yes it's true, I really do get paid to do my hobby. Still, good science is often repetitive and boring they say so I suppose this must be good science.

However sometimes I do manage to spot a few decent birds, including this cracking male wheatear from my survey position. Turns out it's my second earliest ever, if we ignore the overwintering bird at Burton Marsh on the Dee estuary from 2013/14. Also from my survey position, on the very last day and after two weeks of predicting a white winged gull with no success, I finally saw a 2nd winter Iceland gull fly up the channel towards me, and then head away inland over the golf course.

Just down the road from my hotel, this black brant was with a gorgeous flock of 80+ pale-bellied brents and a single dark-bellied brent in Walney Channel just south of Jubilee bridge. It's undoubtedly the same bird which I saw at Roa Island in 2014.

Looking south down Walney channel on a grey day, I must admit, my impression of Barrow and Walney has certainly improved dramatically over the past two weeks. I used to think it was a grim industrial necessity on the fringes of Cumbria, but actually it's scenically a pretty decent place in its own right. If Walney Island was on the east coast it would be a birding mecca.
Iceland Gull, Warrington town centre

There's been an adult Iceland gull knocking around Warrington town centre for a few winters now, usually around the college and I've had a few failed attempts myself to see it. John Tymon saw it on Thursday morning on Tescos car park, and again early this morning, so I decided to have another go at seeing it. I saw it flying almost as soon as I arrived, but it landed on the flat roof of Linde, opposite the Premier Inn on the A49 and was completely out of sight. I hung around for a while and eventually it flew across the road and landed in full view on the roof of Warrington Business School, where it stayed for about 10 minutes before flying back to Linde.  Unfortunately when it's on Linde roof, you wouldn't even know that there is a bird there let alone what species it is, it's just completely out of view.

As often seems to be the case at this time of year, all of my photos seem to be dull and grey, and of gulls or other black and white birds! Stick with it, all will change soon.......

Bloody annoying cables!

The following day John saw the bird again in the same area and got some excellent flight photos of the bird.

Iceland gull - John Tymon

Iceland gull - John Tymon

Iceland gull - John Tymon

Beauty in the beast at Pennington Flash

So the"Beast from the East"arrived today and what a beautiful and dramatic day it was.  Bitterly cold for most of the day with an easterly wind which cut right through you, but wonderful squally snow showers and bright blue sunshine made it the best day of the year so far.

We might still be in the grip of winter but Mediterranean birds abounded at the flash today, the highlight being two pristine adult Mediterranean gulls which didn't seem to care about the cold and were displaying right outside Horrock's hide, with a third adult on the spit. Another species of gull more at home in the Mediterranean, the regular 3rd winter yellow-legged gull still harasses the coots for mussels, whilst three little egrets flew over the spit which held two snipe and four oystercatchers. Male goldeneye were displaying on the flash and several goosander drifted past.

I really don't think that there is a more beautiful species of gull than adult summer plumage Mediterranean gulls, they really have the wow factor and seeing them in snow like this is just breathtaking.

Mediterranean Gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, Leigh

There's been a cracking adult Mediterranean gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal  for the past two weeks, between Leigh bridge and the Atherleigh way. This is undoubtedly one of the birds which roosts at Pennington Flash, but it shows a bit better here!

Overdosing on the hooded crow in Ashton

A few more photos of the hooded crow in Ashton-in-Makerfield. In bright sunlight such as today the pale grey in its plumage looks almost silvery, in fact it's a really smart bird.

When it's not on Ashton Heath the hoodie often spends time on Haydock Park racecourse when it is also in St Helens, Merseyside.

This raven flew over whilst I was watching the crow, one of six species of corvid today.

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