Friday, 20 September 2019

Hacked off at Blacktoft! 19th September 2019

Some days and some trips just don't go to plan. Twitching rare birds is a game of risk and reward but also, on occasion, partial or even ultimate failure. We were on a good run having added 3 new birds to our UK life list and no fewer than 11 to our year list in the last month. I had yet another slack day on Wednesday (that privilege is also coming to an end owing to my increased work load) so on Tuesday I had watched the bird news services all day to see what we could twitch. One bird stood out from the crowd, a Little Crake, that had been found at the RSPB's Blacktoft Sands reserve in East Yorkshire close to the Humber estuary. Blacktoft is around 160 miles from our house so would entail another long drive and my car would be sure to complain so I fed it some more diesel and oil, gave it a bit of water, checked the important bits and sped off north early in the morning.

It was a beautiful day as we weaved in and out of the HGV's that clogged up the motorway but we felt optimistic that it would be another really good days birding. In addition to the Little Crake, incidentally a bird that we've never seen, Blacktoft also had a Spotted Crake present on the reserve so with a bit of luck we could score with two Crake species on the same day! We parked up in the predictably full carpark at Blacktoft at 09:30 and togged up as quickly as we could. A Little Crake was bound to draw in quite a crowd and I remembered our visit here last August when we'd twitched and seen our first ever Buff-breasted Sandpiper, not such a rare bird but it had been standing room only for its admirers in the hide from where it could be seen.

juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Blacktoft Sands, East Yorkshire, 08/08/2018
It took just a few seconds of an overheard phone conversation for my optimism to be squashed! The lady talking away on her mobile uttered, "yeah, no sign of the Little Crake at all and I've been here since first light" and "I couldn't bear the hide any longer, it is rammed". Having travelled so far that was all disappointing news to say the least. On Tuesday the Little Crake had shown pretty much all day after it had been found so if it was still present then you'd expect it to be showing well again. We announced our arrival to the staff in the visitor centre, had a quick chat, then headed to the Marshland hide where the Little Crake had been found. The hide was indeed packed and we both had to stand at the back of it and crouch almost to peer through the windows at the shallow scrape and reedbeds beyond. The assembled birders were quite possibly the most miserable looking bunch I've ever encountered, obviously the bird not being present had blackened their collective moods, particularly those of the locals who hadn't had the chance to see the Crake when it showed so well the day before. Nobody seemed to want to engage in any conversation and none offered any help in where the bird might be except for the gruff, "bugger's not here!". When a seat became available, vacated by the first of many who departed with a scowl, Mrs Caley being the only lady standing literally got barged out the way by a burly chap, "wait your turn!", and was forced to stand for a bit longer. Of course the next place at the window was right next to that nice fellow!

For the next hour or so I craned my neck the wrong way and searched amongst the reed stems for any sign of the Little Crake but there was little to get excited about save for a Reed Warbler that momentarily lifted the spirits since the flash of beige got me all of a flutter! Eventually I was able to settle down close to my wife but we still had Mr Gallant sat between us so we were unable to interact and chat as we normally would. When I asked the chap if he'd swap places his retort was "no thanks, I'm happy here". Cheers mate. If it wasn't for the fact that I wanted to see the Little Crake, I'd have been quite happy if it didn't show so that he couldn't!

In the event, we left at midday and gave it up as a bad job. There had be no sign at all of the Little Crake and there wouldn't be all day as it turned out. Similarly the Spotted Crake had not been reported either. Blacktoft is a huge reserve with lots of reedbeds and hidden pools so both birds could have still been there somewhere and may well be found again. 

There had of course been other birds, a flock of 11 Spotted Redshanks had been dozing on the scrape and there were also Ruff, Black-tailed Godwits, Lapwing, Dunlin and Snipe. We'd also seen a juvenile Water Rail nip in and out the reeds and 4 Little Egrets had been feeding in the shallows. In truth I'd paid little notice to all of those birds since my attention was almost entirely concentrated at the base of the reeds and I only took two photos, one of a Meadow Pipit that dropped in and the other of the Spot Shanks!

Meadow Pipit

Spotted Redshanks (with Lapwing, Ruff, Shoveler & Teal)
I weighed up our options, we could sit and wait for the Spotted Crake to reappear or we could go somewhere else. Because of the fact that this year listing lark that has almost totally consumed us now, I felt that we had to at least try to add to it since if we were going to reach 300 species, which is considered a pinnacle of achievement in the higher echelons of the birding fraternity, we would need to see just about everything that was in reach between now and the end of year. Our current total stood at 265 so we'd need another 35 which doesn't sound like many but bear in mind that we'd already seen most of our winter visiting birds in the first part of the year. There was still a few resident birds that we'd yet to see like Cirl Bunting and Black Redstart but we have a holiday to Cornwall coming up when we should find those plus that trip should offer us the chance to pick up a few rarities too. But we would have to work hard for at least another 25 species so we decided to forego looking for the Spotted Crake and take a 2 hour drive instead right across the country to the outskirts of Liverpool! You do some mad things when trying to build a year list. As it turned out it was a good choice to make since the Spotted Crake hasn't been seen since either.

As we drove out from Blacktoft and onto minor roads to gain the M62 motorway I spotted a Harrier quartering a recently cut hay field. A quick look confirmed my initial suspicion that it was a Marsh Harrier and not the more sought after Montagu's. The Harrier was flying along a ditch close to a side road so I pulled off and followed it, at times it was flying just a few metres ahead and it was fabulous to be able to watch it so closely. I passed the bird, pulled up in a lay-by and readied the camera to take some shots. I've never, despite years of trying, managed to get a clinching image of a Marsh Harrier and here at least I stood a chance. The Marsh harrier however had other ideas and had clearly been party to the "how to avoid Old Caley's camera lens" leaflet since it then endeavoured to avoid any good side on or front views instead keeping it's tail pointing at me. Ah well, there will be another Marsh Harrier on another day in the future when no doubt I'll fail again.

Marsh Harrier
Lunt Meadows was our destination and we arrived after the 115 mile slog along the M62 just after 2 o'clock. The Lancashire Wildlife Trust reserve set on the edge of Crosby reminded me a bit of Otmoor back home except for the fact that there were birds everywhere, very unlike Oxfordshire. We walked along the path towards the Pump Pool where the objects of our chase would be, admiring huge numbers of Lapwing on the small pools and scrapes that we passed. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the river bank that overlooked the Pump Pool. There were more Lapwings here along with a few Ruff and Snipe. A large flock of Canada Geese were noisily laying claim to the muddy areas. A quick scan didn't reveal our target birds so I set up the scope and tried again. Almost immediately I locked onto one of the birds, a moulting adult American Golden Plover, and we had #266 species up for the year! At last a reward on the day. The second AGP was found just a few metres away. The birds were actually quite hard to pick out on the mud and weren't close but I took a few record shots for posterity and the impending end of year review.

American Golden Plovers (& Lapwings), Lunt Meadows, Lancashire, 19/09/2019
The only American Golden Plover that we'd seen before was a juvenile at Davidstow Airfield in Cornwall back in 2014 so we had now tripled our tally of the waders and seen a pair of adults to boot.

juvenile American Golden Plover, Davidstow Airfield, Cornwall, 18/10/2014
American Golden Plovers are darker and more greyish birds than our European Golden Plovers looking more like the larger Grey Plover but sport a prominent and broad white supercilium. They are also a little smaller and more dainty than their European cousins. Interestingly at Lunt the two Americans were the only Golden Plovers there with no European birds present.

After just 10 minutes the two birds suddenly took flight and flew off strongly to the west calling loudly and were lost to view. As is usual for me they chose exactly the time to fly as I was interchanging the 1.4 converter to my lens so I missed the chance to grab a flight shot! It really hadn't been the best day.

There didn't seem to much point in hanging around considering we still had nearly a 3 hour drive to look forward to so we walked away and left what appeared to be a superb reserve. Recently returned for the winter, skeins of Pink-footed Geese flew high overhead making much noise as they did so. 

Pink-footed Geese
The day ended with a soaring Sparrowhawk high over the carpark, too far up for a decent image particularly in what had turned out to be a grey old afternoon.

As we drove southwards we reflected on what had been a tiring and difficult day and wondered if this twitching lark was really for us. The driving is arduous and when you dip a bird it seems a bit pointless but then if you never made the effort then you'd never see anything. We started the year wanting to see more birds than we ever had before in a calendar year and also to get better views of some birds than we'd had before. My initial target that I'd set was 250 so we were already well up on that, I'd revised that to 275 at the end of June but now as mentioned, with hard work and a bit of luck we could even attain that magic 300 mark. Unfortunately today hadn't gone to plan but at least we had added another in the end. Here's to the next and 267!


  1. Keep up the good work Nick, you're presently 12th in the national year list table according to Bubo:,BOU,1,2019,0

    I should say though, it's a tall ask to get 300 from here with a lot more twitching and dipping. I did a county year list just once and vowed never again.

  2. Wow! 12th sounds pretty good considering where we based! Added another since too. At the Spotted Crake the other day I turned and proudly told a couple that we were on 267 for the year. Their reply was that they were on 307 (!) but I did leave wondering about their ID skills when they turned a Buzzard into a Marsh Harrier earlier in the day. I'll keep plugging away.....