Thursday, 27 November 2008

FoCM Christmas Party

We are having a Christmas party on Wednesday 10 th December at the Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale (near Sale Water Park).

Time: 7:00 pm to 10:30 pm.

Richard Gardner (FoCM) Secretary will be giving a short talk on water voles. You may find this a refreshing change from the usual discos, crackers and party hats (although if you find yourself overwhelmed by the desire to pull a cracker or wear a paper hat - feel free!).

We are planning to lay on drinks and food so if you would like to attend please email me (davegbishop@aol.com) before Friday 5th December so that we know how many supplies to get in.

Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair)

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Lapwings - Bird Brains Or Not? by Margaret McCormick

Margaret is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist who I first met when she worked at the MV Visitors' Centre at Sale. Both she and I are members of Manchester Field Club.

In the piece that follows Margaret tells us about some practical Ornithology that she was recently involved with over in the Altrincham area.

The phone rang, ‘Lapwings are using the roofs of Altrincham Retail Park as daytime winter roosts. The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) need people to count the numbers & as you live nearby, any chance you could do this? Well I’m five minutes walk away so how could I refuse. The plan was to count the birds once a month from October to March.

Lapwings feed at night & normally spend the day snoozing in the fields, keeping a watchful eye out for danger from birds of prey, dogs, farm animals or machinery. Roosting on roofs is something new & not just in Altrincham, & it’s been noted in other retail parks up & down Greater Manchester. Is there a Lapwing grapevine, blog or ESP thing going on?

Off I toddled with a notebook to do my first count. Not so easy as some roofs were pitched, so half the birds were hidden from view. Then there were the passers by…from B&Q, Asda, MFI etc...etc. What was I looking for? ‘Lapwings, I’m counting lapwings.’ Funny looks, much head shaking & temple tapping. I clocked up seventy birds & went home. There had to be an easier way. Later that day, around three-thirty, glancing through the back window I spotted a flock of them rising above the roofs of the retail park. I flew (well nearly) upstairs grabbing my camera on the way. There were two separate flocks circling slowly. Between my house & the retail park is a housing estate but the birds were high enough to get a few good shots before they moved away, some to the west & the others to the south. I ultimately dubbed these two flocks ‘The Carrington Gang’& ‘The Mobberly Mob’ as that was where I later found them to be feeding at dusk.
From the camera then downloaded to the computer (with a large zoom) it was a simple matter to count large flocks at my desk.. As the weeks went by the numbers rose to nearly five hundred birds with the numbers peaking in late December early January. All taking advantage of the central heating from the stores rising to warm the roofs & providing a cosy roost for them during the day. As for me….I too could stay in the warm & not run the gamut of strange looks & head-tapping... Easy peasy!

Margaret McCormick, November 2008

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Birds of the Mersey Valley. Part 1: Too many Magpies!

A couple of Tuesdays ago (04/11/08) I decided to do a count of all the species of birds I saw during a circular walk around the nature reserve.

My starting point was the Turn Moss fields, accessed from Edge Lane. These playing fields are usually teeming with gulls and I must have counted 50+ Common Gulls, along with a smaller number of Black-headed Gulls mixing among them. To their number I added the usual suspects of Magpies, Carrion Crows and Woodpigeons – all seen foraging in the grass. As I approached the tree line bordering Hawthorn Lane I added to my list a Jay flying parallel to the trees before disappearing within.

My walk continued through Ivy Green, here seeing a mixed flock of tits passing noisily through the trees. The flock appeared to employ a kind of leapfrogging system, each outrider overtaken by one behind, a sequence repeated and propelling the flock forwards.

Image taken from Google Earth showing walk.

Eventually I reached the metal footbridge over Chorlton brook. Stopping on the bridge I counted in the surrounding scrub and trees, a pair of Great Tits, Wren, Robin and Blackbird. Continuing through Chorlton Ees I walked by the line of Lombardy Poplars leading up to the old sluiceway, in this stint seeing yet more Magpies, Carrion Crows, as well as the odd gull and Woodpigeon flapping overhead. A new addition to my list was a Cormorant seen flying across the Mersey to Sale Water Park.

Taking a right I followed the sluiceway until reaching the Willowherb filled meadow by the Mersey. This is one of my favourite parts of Chorlton Meadows for bird watching, in the spring and summer a great place to see warblers. Though all long flown to their winter homes, I did count a few stand-in species, namely Dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds and, although only seen as it took off, the unmistakeable red underwing of a Redwing, which, like the Blackbird, had been feeding on Hawthorn. Like warblers Redwings are migrants, this time winter migrants. To think this same meadow is popular with winter visitors too, the Elder and Hawthorn in particular providing valuable cover and food, seemed a nice trick and further proof of the benefit to biodiversity of these kinds of wild and unkempt meadows. Adjoining this field is a very overgrown and reedy pond. Here I heard another mixed flock moving through, this time including the odd finch or two and, lovely to see acrobatically feeding in the branches of an Alder, a Goldcrest, the UK’s smallest bird.

A highlight of my walk was the cattle meadow next to the weir further along the Mersey. This meadow always retains flooded and muddy patches. Taking advantage of this water I tallied a handful of Shoveler ducks coasting round the surface – all males. Shovelers are very distinctive, having long flattered bills like spatulas. Males are smartly coloured with startling amber eyes, glossy green heads and chestnut flanks. On this same scrape I observed 2 male Teals flutily calling in what appeared to be some kind of display towards a larger number of females dabbling at the water margins. Whatever they were doing their efforts went unrewarded, the females not once raising their bills from the mud. Joining them in the field I counted a pair of Pied Wagtails, lots and lots of Canada Geese, as well as the ubiquitous Magpie, in numbers so vast I gave up counting after getting to around 40! See the previous article for a possible explanation as to why there’s so many.

My walk then took me across the footbridge by the Metrolink line to Sale Water Park. Walking in the woodland around the Broad Eees Dole reserve, I had a close encounter with a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a female, differing from the male by lack of red patch on the nape of its neck. As it ascended an ash, I managed to creep within a few feet, before (a lesson I never seem to learn) spooking it by taking that one step too many, the woodpecker cocking its head at me and swooping an exit. Another disappointment was the view from the hide at Broad Ees Dole – all that was visible a couple of Herons on the furthest of the exposed islets. The water itself was devoid of any ducks or waders. In Sale lake, however, I did tally a pretty varied count, including Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Mute Swans, as well as numerous Coots, gulls and duck species, including a solitary male Goldeneye which I observed diving as it moved away from me.

My next stop was the feeding station by Sale Water Park visitor centre. Sitting on the bench in front of the feeders, the first bird I saw was a Nuthatch making a couple of sorties to take peanuts. By this time 3 or 4 Magpies had commandeered the feeders, their bullishness from then on making it difficult for any other birds to visit. In spite of this, at the base of the feeding station could be seen a Dunnock picking up scraps as well a male Pheasant obscured by the bank, its head occasionally popping into view like a solider above a trench. Other visitors to the station, often only scavenging from the floor, were Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Great Tits and Blue Tits.

I next walked beside the brook which connects Sale Water Park to the Mersey sluice gate near Jackson’s Boat bridge. Here I was lucky enough to add to my list two male Bullfinches perched low in the willows, and at the other side of the brook in the field adjacent to the one used for model aircraft displays, what I’m 80% sure was a 1st winter male Stonechat perching and darting from sapling to sapling. Keen to get a closer look I crossed over the footbridge part way down the brook, doubling back then to get to where I’d seen the Stonechat. By the time I got there, however, there was no sign. A near recompense was a second Great Spotted Woodpecker, as well as numerous Blackbirds feeding in the Hawthorn. The colouration of one struck me as odd – though jet black like the male, it had a dark bill, like the female. Odd colourations like this aren’t that uncommon and I imagine all I’d seen was a female with a dark-feathered gene. Just as I was about to move on I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye a Sparrowhawk being mobbed by a Carrion Crow. Turning my head I managed to get a momentary clear look before both dived behind a bank of trees.

Walking into the model aircraft field I noted another large flock of Carrion Crows, all chattering to each other as they milled about in the grass. In the Hawthorn hedges along the field margin I counted the odd Blackbird, but my hope was to see a Fieldfare or another Redwing. My hope was rewarded as a little further along I got a very good view of a solitary Fieldfare, albeit a view that was curtailed by a strident dog walker passing by! It flew to perch on a telegraph pole at the other side of the Mersey. It was still there after I crossed Jackson’s Boat bridge, and I managed this time to get a very clear view of it through my binoculars. I finished my walk, from start to finish taking me just over two hours, by cutting through Hardy Farm and exiting at the Brookburn Road entrance.

Can any of you beat my 38 species counted in a single walk round the meadows? I’m sure you can!

Julian Robinson

Species list (04/11/08)

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Canada Goose
Carrion Crow
Common Blackbird
Common Gull
Great Crested Grebe
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Grey Heron
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Pied Wagtail
Tufted Duck

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Crows in the Mersey Valley

Mark Cocker's book, 'Crow Country' (reviewed below) got me thinking about Corvids in the Mersey Valley; which species are present and which are absent?

Eurasian jays are a familiar sight in the plantations on Chorlton Ees and elsewhere. Black-billed magpies are common everywhere - some people might say too common! I am often struck by the large flocks of magpies which assemble on the grazing field next to the cobbled road which runs from Brookburn Road to Chorlton Ees car park. Years ago I met an elderly man, who had lived in Chorlton all his life, who reckoned that magpies are common now because there are no longer farmers with shotguns around to shoot them - as there were in his youth.

There is a large colony of Eurasian jackdaws in Chorltonville. They are often visible from the path which runs past Hardy Farm Community Orchard (ie. the path from Brookburn Road to Jackson's Boat Bridge). Their raucous and excitable chattering amuses me and never fails to cheer me up if I'm feeling a bit down.

Carrion crows are also common. They can often be seen 'hanging about' in ones or twos and, very occasionally, slightly bigger groups.

Rooks appear to be a lot rarer. Our Treasurer, John Agar, tells me that, at one time, there was a large rookery at Longford Park, in the Beech trees adjacent to High Lane. But this disappeared when much of the farmland at Chorlton and Stretford was tipped on or converted into sports fields.

Last year I spotted, what I think, might be a rookery near the motorway at Stretford (see photograph). Unfortunately, my binoculars aren't powerful enough to be able to see the individual birds clearly. Does anyone know if (a) these are rooks and (b) if 'yes', where do they feed?

I'm sure that there are lots of expert birders out there who can answer these questions better than I can. Comments and observations, please!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Book Review

Crow Country by Mark Cocker, Vintage Books, Paperback ed. 2008 (ISBN 9780099485087), 216pp, £8.99

Yes, I know that several of my previous articles on this blog have had a botanical slant, so why, I hear you ask, am I reviewing a book about birds?

Well, first, this is a very well written book about the British countryside, and that is recommendation enough. But, on a deeper level, it embodies a concept which fascinates me: the idea that common organisms in our environment are often more interesting and more complex than we usually give them credit for (if we notice them at all).

Mark Cocker lives in Norfolk, in the Yare Valley, and he appears to belong to that loose coterie of East Anglian writers on the British countryside grouped around Richard Mabey and Ronald Blythe. His particular interest is in the Crow Family (Corvidae). He tells us that, in Britain, this bird family is represented by seven breeding species: the Eurasian jay, black-billed magpie, red-billed chough, Eurasian jackdaw, rook, carrion crow and northern raven. Within that group he is especially fascinated by rooks and the jackdaws which often associate with them.

Mr Cocker tells us that, for several years, he has been attempting to unravels the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of rook (and jackdaw) nesting and roosting behaviour. His interest was first initiated by his observations of the spectacular displays created by flocks of these highly social birds as they left their roosts in the morning and returned to them in the evening.

In order to answer the questions raised by these displays Cocker has travelled widely both within and outside of the UK. At one point he came across an account by a Scottish woman who recalled that, during her Victorian childhood, she would lie in bed at dusk and from her window watch raucous flocks of rooks pass over the house on their way to their roost. Inspired by this account he embarked on an arduous car journey from Norfolk to Dumfriesshire and then spent an uncomfortable November evening on a wind-swept hillside from which he observed … well, I let you read it for yourself!

As well as being an account of some common, but remarkable and incompletely understood, birds, this book is also a rather profound meditation on Natural History and the naturalists who study it; highly recommended!