Monday, 23 February 2015

Solway Weekend

Friday February 20

Trip organised and led by:

We arrived at Falcon Cottage entrance at the same time as Jane, the other tour participant. She from the Norwich direction, us from Mundesley. Carl Chapman, tour leader, was waiting to direct us into a grassy area where the cars would be parked whilst we were away. Whilst Carl packed our luggage into the roof pod, his partner Sharon offered us the use of their loo and we introduced ourselves. Always a polite and reserved affair at the start of a trip, strangers assessing their, soon to be close, companions. 
After  a couple of comfort stops with tea and biscuits dispensed from the back of the car, and another for a very large and enjoyable packed lunch produced by Sharon, we arrived at Leighton Moss RSPB. We used their loos and then drove on to park at the entrance track to the Eric Morecambe hide.
A lovely sunny day with a bitterly cold wind hitting me as I left the cocoon of the car. Kitted up, we scanned the field at the entrance, Carl finding 4 Greenland Whitefronts amongst the flock of Greylag. 

Greenland Whitefronts - 5 - at the back of the photo (Pam)
At least two of the Greylag sported orange neck rings. Part of the Orkney ringing project?

Pam pic.
The journey had nor done much for my back so it was a trudge to the car park (car + pod was too tall to go under the bridge), enhanced by a lovely - and close - Stonechat on top of reed mace. I hadn't carried a camera.......Pam did.

A feeding station in the scrub area approaching the first Hide (the Allen Hide) had Blue and Great Tits, Reed Buntings, Chaffinches and Yellowhammer. Allen Hide is large and spacious, overlooking tide-full pools and creeks of Morecambe Bay.  So many wooden fence posts scattered about in the water. 

Through watering eyes, I scanned the distant scattering of birds, the usual seashore suspects. Curlew, Teal, Gadwall, Pintail, Shelduck, a few Shoveller and a small flock of Skylark. The other three left to walk on to the Eric Morecambe hide whilst I stayed on. 

To my delight, a pair of Goosander flew in to the pool in front of the hide and swam directly in front of me, soon joined by another female who appeared from nowhere. She flew off and the remaining female took up her, flat in the water, beak stretched out in front, submissive and 'I'm ready' position - which he completely ignored. Such handsome ducks, in pristine breeding plumage. 
Two hours driving later, we arrived at the Mabie Lodge Hotel, home for two nights. Established in 1715, it's a very attractive and typically Scottish stone building,  at the top of a hill, attractively situated in woodland with a fine view from the front. 

Passing the parrot's cage enshrouded for the night (?!) we reached our very large bedroom via one long and two short flights of steps. The room contained 1 normal size double bed and one king size - to give an idea of its size.
Dinner was very enjoyable, decent food and entertaining company. Jane is a retired opthamologist, she and her husband ran a family firm. She is very pleasant and entertaining company as is Carl.
Bed was most welcome after a long day, the hot water bottle helped considerably - icy sheets.

Saturday February 21

I decided not to join the pre breakfast walk around the grounds, saving my back for the day ahead. It kills me to miss anything but, for once, my head over-ruled my heart. I went out of the front door to admire the view, in time to see my one and only flock of Pinkfeet  for the trip fly over. The distant hills looked as though they were covered in the snowdrops we've been seeing everywhere, it had snowed on them overnight. 

The view from the Hotel
The others returned at 8 a.m and we had a filling breakfast. of eggs and bacon (me) with a few extras for the others.
The parrot was uncovered when I returned to the stairs. I had a chat with him and he wound himself up to do a very good 'Hallo'. He went quite loopy at my attention, climbing about the wire, flapping his wings, bobbing up and down, emitting hallos at frequent intervals. A smallish green parrot with rose pink under tail feathers, haven't a clue what sort. (Orange-winged Amazonian, I telephoned and asked) Pam carried on the conversation.
With the very high tides predicted for this weekend, we made our way west to Carsethorn.

The village was started by Danish Vikings as a fishing and coastal trading port, the sandy shore giving a hard where it was safe to beach ships at mid-tide on a falling tide, unload or load them from carts at low tide, then float them off on the next rising tide. At a time when roads inland were rutted tracks, most freight and much passenger traffic was by sea. This was only to change with the road improvers like Telford and MacAdam in the early 1800s.  Prints in The Steamboat Inn show that that local fishermen still used 'haaf' nets and worked their boats from the beach until well into the end of the twentieth century.
The channel of the River Nith moved closer to Carsethorn over time, until the deep water channel was near the shore. Carsethorn is first mentioned as a port, in 1562, when a ship was loading for Rochelle and Bordeaux. Later, the 'Carse', as it is fondly referred to, acted as an outport for Dumfries, with the larger ships anchoring in Carse Bay, before unloading their cargo. There was a great deal of trade through the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, chiefly coastal to ports either side of the Solway, to Ireland and to the Isle of Man.

Now, there is a scattering of houses, gardens and garages on the shore side of the road. We parked near to the Steamboat Inn to scan the shore. An immense stretch of sand, dimming into the distance, the nearby channel from the Nith Estuary filling with the fast, inrushing tide. Oystercatchers, a few Turnstone, Curlew and a lone over-wintering Whimbrel. That was a surprise, I didn't know that any stayed over.
Carl thought that a 100 yards or so back the way we'd come in might be better as the channel filled. I sat and scoped on a convenient rock on the beach, Pam joined me and took this lovely photo. 

Before the tide raced in
Carl and Jane scoped from the top.
The sheer abundance of birds rivalled Snettisham but massed in a smaller area with less variety. Probably 2,000 Dunlin, 5 Ringed Plovers, Redshank, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and 4 Scaup were within discernable view

Male Wigeon
The channel had now morphed into a sea, ancient wooden stakes  a clue to its former active life. Passers by said they'd seen an Otter 10 minutes before we'd arrived. 

I stayed, sitting on a bench in front of the car, to scope, whilst the others walked on a little further. Soon after they'd left, I had scope views of at least 2 Harbour Porpoises, swimming right. Thankfully the others saw them too, Carl reckons there were 5. 


Next stop,  Merseside RSPB reserve, to the southwest of Carsethorn. En route, sharp-eyed Carl spotted a distant flock of geese. Taking a side road we saw our first Barnacles, 500 or so. As soon as we arrived, heads were raised and the slow walking away began. Stopping made the whole flock fly away. A magnificent spectacle but we didn't want to disturb them. So wary.
En route a Roe Deer gave Pam a photographic opportunity.

Merseside RSPB Centre has a feeding station directly outside a large window. Very busy, buzzing with photogenic Yellowhammers next to early crocus clumps, Tree Sparrows perched in a tree, on the stumps and on the feeders. So active, so close. Four camera shutters clicking like ackack fire on the Western Front. The reserve is also situated  on the Solway Coast as are Leighton Moss and Caerlaverock..

Tree Sparrow in the waiting area
Merseside Reserve map (Pam)
 After a welcome cuppa and biscuits back at the car, we walked the shortish distance to the hides, along a thickly hedged track which protected the flock of feeding Barnacle Geese 
from seeing us. And us them.......I managed to find a shorter and thinner patch of hawthorn through which to take a few photos, from which I edited out the intruding branches.

I then paused for a rest before joining the others in Bruaich Hide, where Carl had found a Green-winged Teal. Good bird. Carl thinks it was 75 yards away, I think it was rather more. As I'd never photographed this species, I took an appalling photograph which I will still include. Please pass over quickly if it offends !

Green-winged Teal with a European Teal at the back
Early afternoon, time to leave for the swan feeding session at Caerlaverock WWT further east. Lunch was eaten en route to save time. Tower Hide was packed as the feed had already started. I was offered a seat to one side, the others found room at the centre window. The pond was full of gently bugling Whooper Swans, 

Pam pic.
Whooper Swan

Teal and Wigeon, one Pochard, Gadwall and a single female Scaup. 
The near bank, studded with corn, was covered in furiously feeding Stock Doves and feral Rock Doves, flighting away and then returning for more. 

 The Scaup eventually came near enough for photography.

Female Scaup and male Wigeon
The hide soon emptied after the commentary had stopped, Jane and Carl went off to another hide, Pam and I stayed to continue enjoying the spectacle in the soft, late afternoon sun. It had been another beautiful day. Spring on the ground, budding daffodils and crocus, swathes of snowdrops roadside and decorating woodland understory. Still a real edge in the air and winter birds abounding, yet showing signs of the restless and excited gathering which presages their fresh-plumaged journey back to their breeding grounds.
The pond started to empty too, the Whoopers leaving the water, shaking their tails and waddling laboriously, like pregnant women, along to the end of a grassy strip which they used as the runway. In small groups, they collected at the end, nodding necks to each other whilst uttering soft, closed-beak calls before lumbering into flight. 

Pam pic.
Feet thrusting at the ground, necks stretched, wings beating madly, as ponderous as Lancaster bombers before lift-off. They then become powerful and graceful aerial sculptures.

Carl and Jane returned, having seen a second Green-winged Teal and two Water Rails. Carl proposed that we go up to the tower above us for a better view into the distance.
We had earlier seen large flocks of Barnacles rise into the air before landing again in distant fields. The extended and expansive view from the tower made us aware of how many birds were congregated in the fields. The small corner previously visible....

was a minute fraction of the birds present in the area. Irregularly, as the sun dropped towards the horizon, vast fractured clouds of Barnacles would rise into the air, circle and drift before landing again. We estimated 8-10.000 birds in total. 

Stupendous, a lifetime birding experience. My 300mm lens wasn't really up to the job.
Pam and her camera did rather better....
 The still departing Whoopers now showed in a very different light.

Evening light
Reluctantly, we had to leave, as the reserve closes at 5.00 p.m. What a lovely day we'd had.
The parrot was again enshrouded when we got back........

Sunday February 22

Over breakfast, to-day's forecast was discussed and alternative routes planned, missing out the A62 over the Pennines where heavy snow and high winds were forecast. We should be able to cross Shap before the weather hit. It was raining when we left and rarely eased all day. Shap had a sprinkling of snow with strong gusts of wind affecting the car with its pod on top but, nothing major.
This time, we parked and visited Leighton Moss Reserve Centre, which is rather splendid. Especially the feeding areas at the back. Sheltering from the incessant rain under a band stand type place, we watched a group of busy feeders. Nuthatch, calling Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, two Bullfinches, Blue and Great Tits, Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches all came down. Carl called a Willow Tit on the opposite side from the feeders which sent me rushing (!) over. I had good views of it in a nearby twiggy tree, a real treat.
The nearest Centre hide, overlooking part of the biggest reedbed remaining in the north-west, was very close. A few patches of the red Elf-cap fungus in the leaf mould outside were briefly admired before heading for shelter. Pam and I stayed in the hide but Carl and Jane also visited a further one where they added Peregrine. 

Part of the rainy view from the hide (Pam)
Raptors have been missing on this trip, apart from Buzzards and Kestrels.
Locating and counting the cryptic Snipe was the order of the day! 

Pam pic.
We also saw Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Shoveller, Cormorant, Gadwall and Greater Black-backed Gulls.

Male Tufted Duck
 The drive home was not pleasant for Carl. heavy rain all the way with its attendant spray from other vehicles. We were back at Falcon Cottage soon after 8 and home by nine, after seeing to the luggage.
Jane was very good company, undemanding and amusing. Carl the same, with the addition of leading very well with both wildlife knowledge, care and thought for his group. Thank you.
We laughed a lot all weekend.

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