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Sunday, 26 April 2015

Eastern Moors RSPB - National Trust Partnership 23rd April

Thursday 23rd April

Up the hill to Eastern Moors RSPB Reserve with the continuing fabulous weather making the views lovely despite high pressure haze. Along a dry stone wall edge of the huge reserve I met one of the RSPB workers, Alex, working at removing old barb wire strands. He told me some of the things he knew about the reserve and pointed the way to the reserve offices. Through a gate and a push along a grassy path, I then met a couple of dog walkers, Graham and Gill, who obviously loved the area as they said they came regularly. Sam their dog loved it too, soaked and muddy and shaking it all over us all. Graham told me about one of the stone circles, yes one of them; there are a few around the moors and walked back with me to make sure I didn't miss the small path to the nearest one.

Walking and pushing the bike along the path a very small dark butterfly went past me. I thought it was a brown argus but couldn't re-find it to photograph and confirm.
The stone circle consisted of around 20 small rocks with a diameter of about 15 meters.

To the office where the RSPB project manager, Rachel and Danny the site manager were painting the walls of one of the offices.

Taken into another office for a coffee, Danny explained to me about the cooperative nature of the project, cooperation between the RSPB and The National Trust. Together they manage the Eastern Moors, a much larger area at almost 2,500 hectares than I'd thought with more upland areas coming into the management plans in November. I was given a booklet about the importance of the site and its future was fascinated by the prehistoric history as well as its natural.

Outside I went around to the site of a large damaged dam, breeched to remove the reservoir that used to be there a few years back. Not big enough to supply the water needs of nearby Sheffield, the dam had been opened up as maintaining it under EU laws was prohibitively expensive. Now there were just a couple of small pools with croaking frogs and a couple of reed buntings.

Down the path to head to the main road, I found a whinchat, bird number 190 for the year, and heard willow warblers in an area of birch trees. Away over the moor I counted 96 red deer and found 15 more later.

I met a birder, Pete who said that he regularly birded this path. Then it was to another stone circle with a large burial cairn behind it.

Down to the main road I met a birder who said he'd just had a female ring ouzel back at the dam. So cycling back along the main road back towards the offices, I went over the cattle grid, saw a male redstart here on a hawthorn and searched with Pete, who'd also come in search of the ouzel. We found 3 wheatears in the area but no ring ouzel. So ended my visit but it is definitely on my list of 'must go back to' reserves.
On the road again and a superb ride down to Ladybower reservoir and south to Bakewell and beyond. The day ended with me camping in a small woodland about 2 miles from Bakewell, the night being punctuated by a pair of tawny owls on branches just above the tent calling ke-wick constantly until I shone my torch to watch them for a while. Beautiful birds with a star-filled background.

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Bolton to Hathersage. Catching up on the blog despite no WiFi in the tent!

Tuesday 21st April

Early morning ride through Bolton. I didn't want to see Bolton School. That's where my late wife went and I didn't want to go through the memory trail in my head at that moment.

There was Bolton School!

On nearing Radcliffe I came across a visitor's centre for the Merseyside, Lancashire and something else Wildlife Trust. Got to have a drink, I went in. There was a fantastic group of old age pensioners there for a social and a walk around the local nature reserve. Brilliant idea and wonderful people.

Next it was through Oldham, meeting a lovely Muslim girl pushing a pushchair beside me as I pushed up the hill to the town centre. She was a Brummie and she put a donation in the robin. Great!

Now I had just bought a pair of cycling sunglasses and after I reached Dovestone RSPB reserve, I realised I had left them in a Nationwide branch in Oldham! I'd had them for all of 20 minutes. Twit.

Oh I forgot to mention stopping for lunch in Heaton park, the largest council-run park in Europe I was told.

Dovestone is a large pair of reservoirs surrounded on all sides by high hills with steep rocky cliffs, very imposing and impressive. I cycled along the dam wall and the pathway around to the second dam where a road took me back to the Holmfirth Road.

A long push to get to the top, is this a photo of a turkey?

Over the moor and down into Last of the Summer Wine country, I camped up after enjoying chips and fish from Compo's cafe.

Wednesday 22nd April

A long up and down cycle ride to Hathersage where I spent the night at the youth hostel there.

Now why can't the whole of the country lane network be treated as if it were part of the Tour De France? The tarmac along the sections that had been used in such a way had perfect, smooth tarmac and painted slogans of support for the fans favourite cyclists.

On one downward stretch of such tarmac I came across a group of 4 OAP birders who were looking for pied flycatchers. We didn't see one but I did find a beautiful male redstart, bird number 189.

Next highlight of the day was meeting two walkers both before the pub and at the pub. Andy and Kevin were obviously brilliant best mates to each other and their company and banter for over an hour was superb. A pub, The Strines, with over 40 peacocks, strange how the carbon twitching world went crazy over one Lady Amhurst's pheasant when there are breeding Indian Blue peacocks everywhere.

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Liverpool to Marshside & Hesketh Bank RSPB Reserves and Martin Mere WWT Reserve.

Saturday 18th April
On the road again! A bumpy cycle along the dockside road to Seaforth and views of the reserve through the fencing. In 2010 I hadn't been able to see much and it was only after I'd left that the news of a Wilson's phalarope came out. No news of such a quality bird today and I instead enjoyed close vies of a male wheatear.
Down to the beach to see the Antony Gormley statues and along to Hightown with beautiful sunny weather and a few willow warblers in bushes.

I reached Freshfields and went down to the red squirrel reserve to see the little tykes. Quite a few of them about and lovely to see.

Sunday 19th April

Up early from my wild camp tent and soon on the way to Southport via a cycle path that skirted Ainsdale sands.

Now I lived in Southport way back in 1978 and was keen to see the changes. First one noted was the massive spread of spartina grass on the seashore. In 1978 the saltmarsh grasses had stopped around the area where there used to be a sand-winning plant at the end of Marshside Road to the north of the pier. Today the whole of the beach length to Ainsdale, with the exception of a short area near to the pier, had extensive grass areas. I wonder how much higher the beach is nowadays compared to the 70s. I remember being told that the Ribble Estuary, for which Southport is at its head, is rising as London is falling supposedly due to the wobble that Britain is experiencing geologically. I wonder if that's true? Google!!

Other changes included a new cafe on the end of the pier and coastal road improvements. A large multiplex cinema on the seafront; now that hadn't been there before.

On reaching the start of the Marshside RSPB reserve, I stopped to look over a wet grassland area and immediately heard a whitethroat, bird number 184. A couple of ruff going into summer plumage were attractive birds and with the continuing sunshine, birding was going to be pleasant.

To the visitor's centre and no presence of any RSPB staff, I looked out over the reserve. Avocets, summer plumaged black-tailed godwits and quick fly through merlin together with a few swallows were amongst the masses of black-headed gulls and their clamour.

Leaving the bike at the centre I went over to the track the lorries used to take to win the sand and walked to the tide's edge. This was where the RSPB staff all were together with a group of people watching as the tide was swiftly coming in, inundating the saltmarsh. Today's tide was going to be one of the year's highest and cover most of the marsh at its height.

Large flocks of waders were going past, mostly dunlin and grey plover and on the sea there was a small group of eider, 3 males and 2 females. A pair of red-breasted mergansers flew past.

Now I hadn't looked over the whole of the wet grassland area that I'd seen the corner of earlier in the day so I walked over to view that. A first year little gull added another one to the year list and a group of passing house martins added another. A pair of adult Med' gulls and more waders in summer finery, I enjoyed the birding and company in the hide overlooking the area before retrieving my bike and set off north.

Villa! The FA Cup semi final against Liverpool. My team were at 1 – 1 when I found a pub at Banks that had a large screen and food. Carvery bought, I sat amongst the friendly Liverpool fans glad to see me in my celebration of 1982 Villa shirt. Were they thump! The Everton fans amongst the crowd were chatty but 2 Liverpool fans were a little 1970s with their comments.

Villa were the better team. Now that was a shock. Grealish took the ball forward, passed to Delph who turned inside 3 defenders and banged it in. I politely clapped. No I didn't. I went spare! GOAL!!!!!!

I actually got out of the pub at the end of the match unscathed.

Monday 20th April

Off to Hesketh Bank RSPB reserve, a simple flat road and a gorgeous day. Soon there and up the bank to the bus shelter-like viewing position. From there I could see over the maturing habitat that has been created by making a breech in the sea wall nearer to the Ribble Estuary. The hope is as that sea level rises due to climate change (not for the better!), high tides will bring sea water into the area making a new extensive saltmarsh. So far so good as when I last visited here, and slept on the bench in the shelter, the landscape had just been scraped and was bare and muddy. Now with grasses dominating, the landscape had improved. Birds seen were rather sparse but it was low tide. 6 white wagtails, the sub-species of our British pied wagtail, were seen and a couple of male wheatears. A few swallows were also seen but little else. A local birder told me that a dog walker who'd let the dogs off the lead had disturbed a pair of grey partridge. They would have been a year tick.

Off to Martin Mere WWT reserve, quickly reached on flat roads over the Moss. Along roads I knew so well from when I used to live in Southport, I went past a farm and saw a couple of alpacas! Memories of Peru. Hello Chontachaka! Hello Chaskawasi-Manu. Hello Mani & Katia and the boys! Love to you all.

Into Martin Mere WWT reserve and after a quick photo for their facebook page etc, I was off birding. A new to me walkway around the large reedbed behind the harrier hide brought me a couple of year ticks, common whitethroat and a yellow wagtail; the latter on the biological filters of the sewage works there. This I saw by climbing onto a fence post to get a view of the beds.

The best thing though was a fabulous stoat that was charging towards me as I scrambled for my camera. I eventually managed to get a short video sequence of it before it disappeared down a small dark hole very close to me. As I turned my camera off. It popped up vertically to check me out. What a photo that would have made.

Next it was to all of the hides skirting the mere itself, ending up at what I know as the Miller's Bridge hide. I was in there for over an hour when a strange text came from Phil Andrews. Spotted Crake, Martin Mere, seen from the hide I was in . . . all alone.

I ran out to see whether anyone else was around. I wanted that spotted crake. No one around. I ran back to the In Focus shop and received an explanation. A photograph of a spotted crake being disturbed by a stoat a couple of hours ago had just been posted on Rare Bird Alert. With just 10 minutes before closing time there was no chance of having a go for the bird. I left and started cycling for Bolton.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Last Days in Northern Ireland and a Day at Hoylake, Wirral

Saturday 11th April

She did too. Shirley brought me my breakfast suffering from a hangover. She had no knowledge of meeting me the night before. I have that effect on women!

Three Frenchmen joined me for breakfast and only wanted bread. My 'pigeon' French came in handy as they spoke almost no English. They were over here for a rugby game.

Another cycling day; too many of those recently. 35 miles to get to Ballycastle to catch a boat across to 3 RSPB reserves on the wonderful Rathlin Island. The first part of the road took ages as it was a long rise to the top of a high hill, not steep but too much for me to cycle up setions of it. On top there were 21 large wind turbines. I love them and think they enhance the scene. You may feel different but I remember blowing colourful smaller versions of these when I was a child. 21. I had plenty of time to count them as I pushed the bike up the hill.

Down the other side was superb, long and not too steep, it was one of those perfect downhill stretches.

A shelter under trees as a heavy hail shower quickly passed and then on to wards Ballycastle. Good to see that Ballycastle existed again on the direction signs. Back in 2010 all Ballycastle signs had been painted over. A Catholic town in a Protestant area, so I was told.

About 3 miles before the town I came across a Land Rover with a Help The Heroes poster over its bonnet. A coffee and cake morning in the local community hall. How could I resist?

Into the hall where tables with plates of cakes were arranged, I was immediately greeted by a friendly group. They wanted photographs of themselves with the stranger who had just strolled in. The stranger obliged with a bit of fun.

Coffee and cakes for a donation and a chat; I found out that some of the lads including father and sons were going to drive their Land Rover around parts of Europe to raise money for the Help The Heroes charity. They were also going to have a dinner for the same, tonight in fact.

On leaving I was given 2 packets of scones and a plate of cakes. They had so many spare and asked me to take more!

Into Ballycastle and after a bit of a wait, onto the boat over to rathlin Island. The sea was extremely rough and a conversation in the sitting area with a lady from Oxford who had moved to Rathlin quite a few years ago had to be stopped for me to get some air. Outside where I could see the sea and cliffs I had no problem. If I had been inside that cabin any longer I would have up chucked.

Outside on the car deck I sheltered behind a large trailer full of gravel, hoping that the thing wouldn't suddenly become loose from its moorings, as seawater splashed over it. The views of both the high Antrim cliffs and the oncoming Rathlin Island were spectacular as the boat lurched left and right in the swell.

Onto the quay and with the gale from the right I carefully cycled around the harbour and found Rathlin Island hostel, a superb hostel with a large kitchen overlooking the sea, a comfy lounge and usual bunk bed dormitory. As I placed the bike behind a stone storage building, a pair of chough went past. They briefly landed in a field next to the hostel before heading off towards the southern end of the island. I didn't know it then but these are the only pair of chough on the island.

Into the hostel, I met Sean, the co-owner and after a chat and a coffee I went for a walk to try to find the mythical Golden Hare.

Out into the still very strong wind, at least there was a lot of sunshine and from the top of a cliff on the east side of the island, I could see the Mull of Kyntyre easily. I'll be there in July.

On the way up the cliff there had been a flock of 30 odd greylags, a few hooded crows and a lot of meadow pipits. I had also seen over 20 Irish hares, a sub-species of the mountain hare. Amongst the 20 there had been 2 candidates for the golden hare. Is there more than one on the island these days? These two were a lot warmer in colour than the others. Maybe.

A better find, well to me anyway, was as I walked along a pathway along the cliffs of the east side. I found a flint arrowhead! It was white, completely smooth on one side and a ridge on the other gave two surfaces. Its sides showed signs of working that gave it the sharp edges it had required thousands of years ago.

To find one myself was thrilling and more than made up for the one I gave away five years ago.

Back to the road that leads down to the southern end of the island, I saw tufted duck on pools, a stonechat and the chough pair again. They were now feeding in a field of sheep just north of the largest lake on Ronvoolin RSPB reserve. The walking had been tough in the gale but the views made it all worth while.

I didn't go all the way to the end of the road, the sun was going down. So I didn't get to the area next to the small black and white lighthouse there. Instead I got to where I could see it against the Antrim cliff backdrop and turned back. I followed the road all the way to the hostel and relaxed with a plate of fairy cakes and a drink.

Sunday 12th April

A much calmer day with plenty of sunshine, the island looked wonderful as I cycled almost unladen towards the seabird centre at its west end. Birding all the way, a couple of lesser redpolls allowed some photographs. In the harbour over 90 eider were gathered, the males making their Frankie Howard pursued lip calls as they raised themselves from the water in display.
A group of Atlantic grey seals were resting on the rocks with turnstone and ringed plovers by them.
Up the steep hill and onto the higher plain I stopped at the RSPB viewpoint, an area devoted to the pair of chough. From this elevated position, the view was even better than down below and using my binoculars I could make out the famous ropebridge at xxxxxxxxxxxx

After over miles I eventually came around a corner to see the small croft used by the RSPB to house the volunteers that come in the summer. Here the tarmac road changed to bumpy stones and so I got off and pushed the bike for the last mile to the being built seabird centre.

Just before I rounded the last corner 3 wheatears gave me the first year tick of the day. Bird number 181.

With fencing around the hopefully soon to be completed seabird centre, I left the bike against the gate and walked around to the highest point to look over the extremely high cliffs here. I knew what I would see but was still excited by the prospect.

There was the old lighthouse on its prominent platform, closed at the moment but full of memories from my last visit. There were the tall stacks but here there was a major difference to 2010. There were no auks. Not one! Hundreds of kittiwakes yes but not the ten of thousands of guillemot, razorbill and puffins that would be there soon. They were still all out at sea.

Immediately in my head I changed my reserve itinerary! Bempton would have to be visited in June. I needed an auk fix of Bempton proportions.

Auks may not have been there but the views were fabulous nonetheless.

On retracing my tracks I stopped off at a house belonging to one of the RSPB people on the island and so met Alison. Over coffee she showed me her collection of Stone Age implements and a dolphin skull. It's great to meet people who collect these sort of things.

Back down to the harbour eventually to collect my things from the hostel and catch the boat back to Ballycastle. Actually I felt a little guilty at not staying longer on this wonderful island but the needs of the year list meant that time was at a premium.

After a much smoother passage than the previous day, with a couple of close manx shearwaters seen, I cycled to and met a great couple in a pub that advertised Bed and Breakfast. They were both passionate cyclists and so the next hour was spent talking cycling. No bed available after a pint that I actually enjoyed, Shipwick I think, I went to the next hotel and enjoyed a comfortable night.

Monday 13th April

Now I shouldn't have called in that pub and I definitely shouldn't have had a night in a comfy hotel. That had not been the intention. “Get as far as you can along the road to Larne before camping,” I had told myself. The weather is perfect so get the distance covered.

I hadn't and the weather Gods were going to make me pay for it. A strong gale in the face. Cloudy with a band of heavy rain as well. I made progress as well as I could and got to Larne after a few painful hours.

Along to the far end of Larne Lough to look for an American duck, a green-winged teal. Instead of finding that I found a pair of birders who told me that just a few days before the bridge that we were now standing on had been the scene of birding chaos. Police had been called to control the crowds vying for views of the vagrant.

The rarity causing such a fuss, an avocet.

With much improved weather, still windy but now with some sunshine, I was cycling back to the main road to head towards Belfast when a motorist stopped me and asked if he could take some photographs of me and the bike for the local Larne newspaper.

Castleferrgus and a few birds on the beach to watch, pale-bellied brents and golden plover; the latter sporting spangling summer plumage. Then to Belfast dock for the overnight ferry via a cycle way.

Tuesday 14th April

Straight from the docked ferry I went along the cycle path around the north of the Wirral. I knew this path well. It's the one I had cycled more than once in parts before heading for Northern Ireland. I was on my way to have another attempt at seeing surf scoter. Up to 7 had been reported from Hoylake beach in my short absence.

No sign of the laughing gull as I went past New Brighton's marine lake. Recently it had started to to go across the Mersey to Seaforth Docks nature reserve, adding to their extensive list of American birds.

Arriving at Government Road, Hoylake, I hid the bike behind some buildings and walked out to the distant tideline. There were already two birders, Lyndsey and Gareth from near reston, searching through the scoter flock but the sea was just too rough and the birds just too far out to be able to get a fix on any likely candidate. After a couple of hours of trying, with Lyndsey being very helpful to my cause by saying “your need is greater than mine,” when lending me her telescope, it was decided to have a break and try again later at low tide. The weather forecast for then was sunshine and less wind so hopefully better conditions for viewing.

Back around 12, I met another birder as I walked out further than before named Andy Vincent. He was actually going back to his car but turned around to 'have another go'. At the tideline now were a few birders all searching for the surfies. Lyndsey and Gareth returned and just after, with a much flatter sea and a bit of hazy sunshine, Andy shouted out he'd got one. Between turbine 13 and 14 from the left. Then I found it! It was to the right of turbine 14, level with a distant gas platform. Other birders got onto it as they say and so bird number 182 was added to the list and what a good one too, a '54' no less. I texted my birding friends and was told that a hoopoe had been seen first thing in the morning at Thurstaston but not since.

A pair of surf scoter were then found and seen by all, not the best views of this great little American duck I'd ever had but adequate and on texting Phil Andrews I received the reply that 3 was 2 more than I needed.

On leaving to head towards Liverpool for a few days rest I retrieved the hidden bike and started to cycle along the seafront road. After just a couple of hundred yards, Andy Vincent stopped me. He had been to look for little owls nearby and had found one. With his directions in my head I found the spot and indeed, there was a little owl difficult to see amongst the branches and leaves of a low down bush next to a large cracked willow. Bird number 183 seen and photographed, the owl became my Facebook heading photo for a week or so, a gorgeous little introduced bird.

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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Long Cycling Days. Armagh to Limavady.

Wednesday 8th April
A superb breakfast served up by the 'there's lovely' Alice. Goodbye and thanks to her and Dermot for a lovely night's stay and the long ride to Aghatirourke RSPB reserve began. At least the weather was continuing to be very kind to me, sunny and warm with just a little wind coming from the south west.
Puncture! Just before the Republic of Ireland border, reasonably soon fixed despite there being two small holes.
The mileage signs caused hilarity just before this happened. 11 miles then 10 to go to Monaghan, then 11 again, back to 10 and finally back to 11. I'd travelled 4 miles during this time and where they had gone for the sign makers I don't know.
Into and straight through Monaghan, into and straight through the Republic, I had no time to sightsee this time.
Blackcap singing in a thicket to the left and as i'm back in Northern Ireland I can count it on the BOU year list, number 179.
Willow warblers! Bird number 180 and conveniently sitting atop a small bush, photographed too.
Off onto a very small country lane and the largest gravelled tarmac ever, more like pebbles. No chance at cycling over it, off and push to the top of the hill.
Across the bridges of upper Lough Erne and around to the lane to take me to the ridge top that is Aghatirourke RSPB reserve.
Leaving my panniers under a hedgerow where I had camped back in 2010, I went up to the top and along to the end of the tarmac road. Skylarks, meadow pipits and a lone female stonechat were the only birds on the expanse of moorland that makes up the reserve. I walked up the nearest hill and looked all around, hoping to see an irish red grouse, a sub-species of the version in the rest of the UK. No such luck but the views were tremendous as the sun started to go down to the west.

Back to my stuff, tent up and a very peaceful rest under a star strewn sky.

Thursday 9th April

Up and packed early and off downhill and along the main road to Enniskillen for breakfast at a roadside cafe.
Off to the north west and along that side of lower Lough Erne, the views soon became amazing. Once again the weather made the waters blue and the islands shine.
At a garden beside the road I stopped to photograph an alien! As I laughed at the sight, the lady owner of the garden and large bungalow, Clare came around the corner and suggested I looked to my left.

I was in tears laughing. Look at the dog.
Clare was joined by her husband, Dennis and the next hour was spent enjoying their company over a coffee and biscuit. Fabulous couple, so in synch with each other, I really enjoyed meeting them both.
Around to the north coast of the Lough and down to the RSPB sign that states that there are 39 management reserves around the Lough! I explored this one, impossible to go to the others, the RSPB puts them all under the banner of Lower Lough Erne reserve.

Summer migrants had been around in force today with 59 singing willow warblers, 7 blackcaps and 8 chiff chaff doing the same and 8 swallows seen. No birds of prey today. The last one was a sparrowhawk that I saw yesterday. Where are they all?
To Kesh and then towards Castlederg, I stopped at a derelict Primary school building and went around the back to camp in private. Sad to see a grave in the playground for a teacher who had died at the early age of 23!

Friday 10th April

Another day cycling. I'll be glad when the balance shifts towards the birding side of the tour.
Through Castlederg and then on towards Strabane. Just before there, at Sion Mills I saw the church that had Jesus and his disciples above the entrance and I knew I'd been this way before.
Strabane and a foot-long sandwich at Subway with Wifi to catch up with facebook a bit.
On the way out of the city I found the musicians again, now fenced off. In 2010 I had fallen asleep against a grassy bank here and not had anything knicked whilst I slept, thankfully.
Into 'Derry to sort out a couple of financial matters and then to Lough Foyle. High tide at this RSPB reserve and very few birds. A number of mute swans were all really.
To Limavardy and into a pub B and B for a room, I was accosted by a couple of drunk girls who made me blush. I won't say how! There was a lot of drinking and laughter for a wake being held there after the funeral this morning.
Accosted again, this time by Shirley. “I'm making your breakfast tomorrow,” she told me.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

April 5th to 7th Belfast Lough to Portmore Lough. Both RSPB Reserves with a day at Castle Espie WWT reserve as well.

Sunday 5th April
Now how much fun can one have at an RSPB reserve? Answer a lot! I'd got up early and cycled, after a breakfast seated at the table with two young Germans from Bremen, To Belfast Lough RSPB reserve. A new visitor's centre greeted me as did a delightful Polish girl named Monika. Once inside I met Heather and Hilda and they were soon joined by Pete and Pamela. No Chris, the warden. It was his day off and gutted as I was that he was not there, as I had had a brilliant time with him last time back in 2010, there was nothing to be done about that and so we all had a good natter, a coffee and a look at the birds. Monika went out to the front of the centre and put out a lot of corn. This brought in around 50 black-tailed godwits, many in summer plumage. They were so close. Brilliant. I don't know of any other RSPB reserve where you can see so many of these wonderful birds just yards in front of you.
As high tide approached I searched through the gull flock as Monika reported that there had been a glaucous gull present during the week. No glaucous but I did find a sandwich tern, the first tern the reserve had had this year. A new bird for the year list. Number 177.
Another birder found a second year Mediterranean gull, a few black spots on the primaries and a not bright red enough bill.
A family arrived and I gave my camera to the children to take some photos. Blow me if both Mum and son, Scott proceed to take brilliant photographs of the godwits!
Other than the birds we all had a lot of fun and I would advise anyone in the Belfast area to visit the reserve.

Monday 6th April
Having cycled the Greenway from Belfast to Castle Espie the evening before, and after having camped beside the scenic Strangford Lough with a stunningly Turneresque sunset, I arrived at Castle Espie WWT reserve just before opening time.
Immediately met by the tall and beautiful Sarah, the manager; photographs were taken with the bike and the staff and breakfast followed. There can't be a better view from a nature reserve cafe than the one here at Castle Espie. With a blue sky and views over to Strabo, the Rapunzel-like tower atop a hill to the east, the view is superb and the red-breasted and rooss' geese added to the scene.
Easter Monday and fun of a different sort to yesterday. Today was hunt the Easter Bunny, a not too difficult task meant for children but I had to win a lolly! Cryptic clues led to each of the 3 feet tall bunnies subtly hidden around the reserve. I collected my clue sheet and pencil from a wonderful member of the WWT staff, Audrey and set off on the hunt.
Number one was beside a large stand of pampas grass in the bird feeding areas, number 2 beneath a bridge. The laughter and enjoyment of hundreds of kids with their families was great to see and so what if the WWT choose to engage children in such a way, with the emphasis on families, I for one applaud them. Get the families and kids to enjoy being outside instead of being in a box watching a box.
Of course it is a nature reserve as well and at the first hide there was a black-tailed godwit with 4 colour rings on, two on each leg. That was on a man-made scrape. Out over the lough from the same hide there were a good number of pale-bellied brent geese and 8 whooper swans, both remnant flocks from much larger numbers in the winter. Castle Espie has over 35,000 pale-bellied brents in winter, Now that would be both a spectacular sight and sound.

Through the stone age area with it's beautifully made stone age house, it was full of people enjoying a story-telling session and a queue outside showed how popular this attraction was.

Back in 2010 I was given a real middle stone age flint arrowhead. I ended up keeping it for all of 6 days. A wonderful family, the Irwins from Portadown, put me up for the night. This was after they'd met me at Oxford Island where an American ring-necked drake was on the immense Lough Neagh. They had gone home from there and brought me a picnic! Anyway I stayed with them 2 days later after visiting Portmore Lough and their young son was fascinated by the arrowhead. I gave it to him. I'd always wanted such a relic and here I was giving it away. You never know though, spark a child's interest and where could that lead. Much more important than me having it in a box or pocket.
Over to a beautiful new since my last visit glass box atop a hill. With a terrace outside and superb views over the Lough, Inside there was a long queue of children waiting to have their faces painted. I had wanted mine to be done but instead I counted the geese. There were over 150. The tide was rapidly coming in and the geese were along the water's edge.

More bunnies found, I moved the factory into position and looked into the chimney base.
Up into the woodland area with it's playground facilities covered with children, the area I wanted to explore was unfortunately cut off for development purposes, a new attraction for this superb place.
Along the path with masses of wood anemones, little grebes on the lake and back to the centre to claim my prize for having found all Easter bunnies, a lollipop soon given away to a child making an Easter bunny for herself with one of the staff, Bayley.

A fabulous lunch of broccoli and chicken bake taken from the cafe with the superb views and around the reserve again as the crowds left in the late afternoon.
A thoroughly lovely day. I have always thought that one of the best sounds in the world is that of children's laughter and there had been plenty of that. Lots of families playing together and lots of money going towards the WWT's conservation work. Brilliant.

Now that the clock's have gone to British Summer Time and it stays light until 9.00pm, I have the opportunity to have a full day's birding then get the cycling done later on. Tonight I cycled past Lurgen and after the sun had gone down, find a place to camp that follows my rules.
1. No one can see me in my tent.
2. No one can tell I was ever there after I have left the next day.
Now I had a problem with the later because I had been enjoying the cycling so much it was almost dark when I found a place that followed the first rule. I had found a woodland and quickly found a small glade in which to set up the tent. Only problem was, it was full of wild garlic flowers and even I could smell them as I crushed the plants! Oh well, needs must.

Tuesday 7th April.

It didn't take long to get to Portmore Lough RSPB reserve in the morning; another morning of blue sky, sunshine and no wind. Three days in Northern Ireland and I had hardly seen a cloud! I was being extremely lucky with the weather!
An Irish hare in a field just by the entrance, a new mammal for the mammal year list as it is related to the mountain hare and not the common variety.

Straight through the gates and instead of the straight ahead stare as last time, I met a face I remembered from the that visit. Laura had been a volunteer here back in 2010. Now she was the warden.
You won't remember me.” she said. I did. She had fallen into the lough when we last met as she pushed the boat that I was in out over the water.
I also remembered the rather pneumatic girl noisily engaged in some sort of energetic, frantic sporting activity on the front seat of a small car and the small man beneath her submerged in her ampleness!
I had just cycled onto the car park late in the evening to be confronted with this sight and had a choice; do I stop to enjoy the free show or cycle past as if nothing was going on. I looked straight ahead and cycled past. It wasn't to be the last time I came across such a display but the funnier one I'll tell you about that time when I come to that part of the world. One clue, it involved a broken glass and a bottle of red wine.
Into the new wooden building where I had camped before and into the office to meet 4 lovely young girls. Now how come it hadn't been like this when I had been on residential RSPB reserves when I was their age. Instead back in the 1970s I had been with a group of all boys at each reserve I volunteered at. Life can be cruel!
Coffee and chat and then out to bird watch. I thought I caught site of a little egret, a very rare bird for the reserve for this time of year but waiting for it to come out of the distance ditch for half an hour didn't give any more views. What were a lot easier to see were the tree sparrows and a lot of them there were too. One of my favourite birds, they were everywhere when I was a young man but now so few are left.

Down the extended broadwalk past many tree sparrow nesting boxes and down to the hide with a Swarowski telescope lent to me by Laura. The views over the almost perfectly circular and huge lough were beautiful with it's blue waters reflecting the blue sky. 2 whooper swans were amongst the commoner mutes and lots of great crested grebes with flocks of the commoner ducks. Visitors came and went and I enjoyed a couple of hours peacefully watching the scene.

Back up to the office, I was going to explore the field edges. Instead I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting the grass around the picnic benches and pathways. This freed up the girl to count the lapwings, over 80 of them. Lapwings not girls.
So I had been at Portmore Lough and done work on the reserve again. Back in 2010 I had helped put branches into the lough's mud for the terns to roost on, had assisted with the creation of a ramp way for small tern chicks to climb onto when they had fallen off the tern breeding platforms and had driven the caterpillar tracked vehicle to access the marshy areas where Connix ponies grazed. I had also met Mr Poots, the Northern Ireland Environment minister and his daughter on that previous visit. She had wanted to come and see the ponies.

One last thing about Portmore Lough and something that I think is amazing despite the fact that almost no one knows about it, especially the local people I asked. Portmore Lough, so the theory goes that seems to fit all the data, was made about 1500 years ago by a Men in Black. Superman-like meteorite strike! Yes, this huge circular water-filled hole was made by an air burst meteor. Now if this had happened in England I feel there would be more fuss about it than over here in Northern Ireland. After all it is about the same size as the famous Arizona meteor crater.
It's not every day you visit a meteorite crater.
Leaving the reserve after I had booked a night's accommodation at a 29 miles away B and B at 5.30pm, I was a little worried that I might not get there before dark at 9.00pm. I arrived at a superb B and B at 8.00pm despite having a gear problem on the way. Go Gary!

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Monday, 6 April 2015

A Dip and a Year Tick. Hoylake to New Brighton, April 3rd & To Belfast April 4th

Friday 3rd April
Out into the rain early to try for the surf scoter, it meant leaving everything at the hotel and walking a mile plus out to the water's edge. Walking across the flat sands of Hoylake, it was clear that the chances of the surf scoter were very slim and so it proved. On reaching the sea the scoter were still a long way off in sporadic groups and there was no way I was going to see the special one.
I did see very close sanderling though and I videoed a distant flock of waders as they proved to be about 750 oystercatchers as they flew past and beyond towards Hilbre Island. A youtube moment.
With the tide coming in I backtracked all the way to the seawall and sat in a shelter there hoping that the rain would stop. It did to some extent but then the fog came in!
After collecting the bike and stuff and having seen no improvement in the fog, I decided to cycle to New Brighton. At least I should get the laughing gull that had been there for a very long time.
Cycling there was easy as a cycle path went along the top of the Wirral the whole way. I did stop a couple of times; once to photograph a lone purple sandpiper and then to look at a dead guillemot.
Arriving at the marine lake at New Brighton I scanned the water and pontoon where the laughing gull was supposed to be practically a full time resident.

It wasn't there.

I texted friends.

Sit and wait.

I did.

Well, no I didn't. I cycled around the lake to look over the Mersey and the Fort area. High tide, almost no beach and fog so thick you couldn't see the other side of the estuary. On occasions you couldn't see one end of the marine lake from the other.

I sat by a cafe.

Someone put out some chips.

Laughing gull on the year list!
It landed on the pontoon and walked through the large flock of roosting waders. The waders were 50:50 redshank and turnstones with 8 purple sandpipers in one corner.
Replete with photographs and videos of the laughing gull, bird number 176, I cycled to Seacombe and found the B and b I had stayed at back in 2010. It didn't seem to be in business anymore and I ended up cycling back through the rain to the Travelodge over looking the marine lake at New Brighton.

Saturday 4th April.

Now why couldn't yesterday have been like this? Sunshine came through the window of my hotel room and the sky was clear and blue. The laughing gull was there again, sitting amongst the waders. A group of people were releasing an injured cormorant onto the marine lake to stop any dogs from harassing it. They'd just found it floundering about on the beach. A couple of the men then stripped off! They were about to have a swim in the lake.

A quick cycle along the Mersey with wonderful views of Liverpool and down to the Stena Line ferry. With the bike quickly stowed away, one had to get on a double decker bus to get onto the ferry. That was a first.
A cabin with ensuite. I am being a bit indulgent this time. So after watching the sea as we went out into the Irish Sea I went and had a shower and a couple of hours kip. Interesting how it was only common gulls out at sea around the Mersey mouth.
Now I had hoped that the Wifi onboard would give me the opportunity to catch up with everything. No chance, it was slow and intermittent.
Dinner on board with views over the bow as we passed the Isle of Man. The sea was almost flat, just the smallest ripples and birding was a bit slow; just a few guillemots, mostly in pairs with a few manx shearwaters and kittiwakes. There was also the odd adult gannet.
Off Copeland there was few harbour porpoise and then a number of eider as we turned in towards Belfast Docks. A couple of great northern diver flew past and a few black guillemot and shag were nearby.
Belfast! How good to see the huge mural on a large block of flats, Vernon House, across from the first traffic lights you come to on the Shore Road, of a balaclavaed paramilitary man has been removed since my last visit but a shame that Vernon House's sign of welcome has also gone. More of a shame to me though was a huge mural on a building nearby. Just concentrate on the left and forget the right.

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