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

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