Hoylake: Wirral’s Winter Wonderland

Hoylake, this tranquil seaside town situated on the north western coast of the Wirral peninsular , is one which is captivating throughout the seasons: In the dawn of Spring the returning Northern Wheatears, Sandwich Terns & White Wagtails grace the coast line, in Summer Atlantic Grey Seals, Little, Sandwich, Arctic & Common are all to be found feasting on the bountiful supply of fish off shore. Meanwhile in the madness of Autumn the waters off Hoylake attract visitors from across the country to a Wirral specialty…Leach’s Strom Petrel. These magnificent ocean ramblers rarely come within sight of land, yet after a few days of north westerly gales they coat the waters off Hoylake a jet black as they bolt past on there way to there wintering grounds. Just in these three months alone Hoylake sounds like a birders paradise and it certainly is on with rarities such as Barolo Shearwater, Pallid Harrier, Arctic Warbler, American Herring & Laughing Gull, White Rumped, Board-billed, Semipalmated & Western Sandpiper all being record in and around the town. Yes despite all this its not the majority of visitors come to set theirs upon, instead the month during which hundreds flood the town is winter; from November straight trough till March birders flock to come and see a true winter spectacle, the tens of thousands of waders which call the Dee & Mersey estuaries there winter home all coverage at once as they form one massive mega flock were which they roost out the high tide period along the shore of Hoylake.

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WESTERN SANDPIPER found along the shore of Hoylake by Wirral birding legend Allan Conlin (Image Steve Williams)

As many of 48,000 Red Knot alone have been counted on the shores of Hoylake as well as 40,000 Common Scoter, 100 Common Goldeneye, 5,000 Eurasian Oystercatcher, 4,000 Grey Plover, 1,500 Sanderling, 10,000 Dunlin and rounding off with 15,000 European Herring Gull, winter is by far the most action packed & transfixing time to ever pay a visit. On the day of January 15th my local RSPB group (@Wirral_RSPB), would be having their annual meet up at Hoylake and with so the squad from RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands (@RSPB_BurtonMere) would be joining us for a High Tide Wader Watch in which we’d be blown away, as always, by this winter wonder.

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Red Knot making a flyby

 

The day started off like any other, wrapping myself up ready to brave what ever the weather would be and today that meant full thermals and water proofs before heading out to meet up fellow young Wirral birder Luke Anderson. Arriving at Hoylake early we made the rather rash decision to go and walk up the promenade towards Leasowe so that we could watch the racing tide consume the sands. Walking along the prom being battered by the wind & pelted by the occasional flash of rain, we held are heads high and just soldiered on hoping that the arctic winds would of blown us down a white-winger eg. Glaucous or Iceland Gull. The pair of us spent a good hour walking up towards Leasowe scanning every gull we came across and by the end of it we were rather let by the fact that it was all dominated by Common, Black-headed & European Herring and the odd gigantic Great Black-backed Gull which even put the Herrings up!

We were both feeling a little let down that after our effort that we weren’t rewarded, but as I tell myself you have to be in it to win it, just that sometimes you don’t always win. What did lift our spirits was that the sun was finally being aloud out to play & shortly afterwards we discovered a lone Common Redshank feeding in a little flooded area just north of were there was a Boating Lake by the new Life Boat Station. Here myself and Luke decided to go into photography mode and took turns shuffling behind the wall which separated us and bird before popping our heads over one by one and firing short bursts with our cameras hoping to come away with a smug smile on our face; grant it may of taken us a while but we eventually came away with shots which we were happy with. Recently I’ve had the luxury of upgrading my lens from the Sigma 150-500mm which I’ve now had for 2 years, up to the show stopping Canon f/5.6L USM 400mm lens which as you can see from the pics in this post is an absolute beast of kit!

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Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – By far my best shot of this species
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Luke photographing the Redshank

After this little drama it was a stroll back down the prom over to were the main event would be taking place. On arrival a hoard of 100c birders were all lined along the prom with scopes and cameras set up watching over the shoreline. A few weeks before today I sent out word to Young Birders across the North West saying that the event would be taking and asked if they’d like to join me, although not all could join Luke and a young botanist from Manchester called George Hassall (@GreenFingeredGeorge). Despite just being 11 he’s already won a number of awards, appeared on The One Show, a RHS Young Ambassador along with that he’s one of the most intellectual people I’ve ever met.

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Just a small section of a monster flock of over 5,000 Eurasian Oystercatcher

Over the next couple of hours myself, Luke & George gazed upon this priceless winter spectacle as over 5,000 wading birds came into roost on the shore just meters away from us as the ever invading tide approached the spectators. Thousands of Eurasian Oystercatcher turned golden sands into a complex mixture of blacks, whites & oranges, it was then the turn of the Red Knots as one by one and sometimes a small flock, they were flying over and joining in on the madness stretching across over a kilometre. Here there and everywhere there was some sort of action kicking off, weather it was a squabble between the Gulls or Oystercatchers, parties of Red Knot desperately trying a place to roost, or when a flock of 2,000+ Dunlin appeared out of the blue and attempted to land, there something happening. As the saying goes time “fly’s when your having fun” and the three of us defiantly were, but just as fast as it all started it was now time to say our farewells and depart from this historic & transcending destination.

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1 of the thousands of Red Knot which shot passed at lighting speed

Now this was were I had planned to end the post on that day, but something rather unexpected then happened…..

As George and his parents departed to head off to RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands to defrost and get some more action, myself and Luke headed off to West Kirby to go and grab ourselves a sausage roll as we warmed up ready to head over to our joint patch of Bidston Moss. It seemed like a pretty normal end to a day to be honest, popped into Morrison’s for a bite to eat and then headed for a walk round Ashton Park which was were the first surprise of the day occurred. It was whilst we were strolling through the woods at the entrance of the Park that Luke suddenly realised that it was here, Aston Park, were his love for Wildlife and Photography first started off and each step we took further into the park just opened up more doors to these forgotten memories. It was as we were walking round Aston that the second surprise of the day then occurred. Checking through the ducks on the parks rather small and highly disturbed lake I noticed a odd looking duck, it was roughly the size of a Mallard, it had similar markings to that of a Mallard, yet it had its head tucked in, facing me and had a white breast. Mine and Luke’s first thoughts were Northern Shoveler but it was on a small body of water in the centre of a town surrounded by screaming kids, a Shoveler really ? Well it was after 5 minutes of awkward silence and puzzled faces that the mystery duck finally revealed its self…to be…a NORTHERN SHOVELER! Who would of thought it! After asking around on Facebook & Twitter along with doing my own research it turns out that mine and Luke’s find is in fact only the 3rd record of Northern Shoveler for the Park! But there was still one last, one massive big surprise left in stall for us.

As we were boarding our train ready to head to Bidston to check the undergrowth for Fungus, Flatworms, Springtails & Leach’s and had a quick sweep of Bird Guides and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing…drake Green-winged Teal showing well from Inner Marsh Farm, RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, Cheshire…11, over the past 4 years I’ve been the unluckiest person alive and had to hold the trophy of 11 dips of Green-winged Teal. As its been with every other Green-winged Teal which I’ve dipped it was a case of going into a mode of sheer excitement, then hesitation of weather or not I should  go for it then the phone call to mother to she if she’d be kind enough to ferry me around. Where as mum was unable to take Luke & I down Andy was, so after a little sweet talk we met up at Bidston Train Station and bombed it down to BMW aiming to finally nail my number 1 bogy bird.

Arriving at the reserve with just an hour of daylight left myself Luke raced out the car and over to Reception Hide where we were informed by one of the regulars and friend Liz Pitchfork, that drake Mandarin Duck had just been discovered over on the Mere’s. But before we went off to go and get the Mandarin (Lifer for Luke) we spent a little time in Reception to show Luke the Whooper & Bewick’s Swans which were feeding in the back fields of the reserve. So once they were seen and done with it was a rash over to the Back Mere to try and locate the Mandarin Duck, which considering its loud plumage was some what a challenge to find. But after a 5 minutes of patrolling and scanning the mere we finally pinned it down, took a couple of record shots in the dying light and it was now finally off to Inner Marsh Farm aka IMF to go and finally pin down the greeny.

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Its not going to win any competitions but its a record shot which I’m happy with

Jogging over to the hide, which was annoyingly over on the complete opposite end of the reserve to were we where at, it didn’t take long till we finally approached the hide and in doing so bumped into George and his dad who seemed just as egger as were to connect with the Teal. Once in the hide it was a simple question of asking where about’s the Teal was and surly enough a kind gentleman allowed us to have a peek through his rather fancy scope allowing all 4 of us to set our eyes upon our very first GREEN-WINGED TEAL, it was a beautiful moment and so beautiful in that I actually weep with joy because after 4 sodden years of going all over the shop either missing them by report was fake, hasn’t been seen today or just flown off, today I finally ticked off that one bird which I’ve tried so hard to finally nail, I think emotional would be the right word to use as I’m sure Luke would like to describe it as.

As this was our first ever Green-winged Teal and it meant an awful lot to me, we decided that instead of just ticking it and moving on as do some twitchers, the pare of spent an extra hour in the hide taking in and treasuring the moment. The air was still, the sound of dabbling Teal & whistling Wigeon combined as a melody to blessed our worked out ears whilst are eyes watched over the IMF pool & scrapes as a Marsh Harrier sliced through the air putting up everything in its wake. It was truly a special day and so far the best day of 2017 with my 3rd lifer of the year already and Luke’s 23rd lifer since we started birding together in the last half of December. It was now almost complete darkness and as we weren’t keen on getting trapped on the reserve over night and left to the mercy of the elements, we made our track back along the reserves paths were we chanced upon Cetti’s Warbler & Great White Egret (Lifers for Luke), and up and beyond into the historic town of Williston to get collected by mother before heading back to base.

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Can you spot it ?

Well, what a day and by far the best of 2017!

Thanks for reading,

Elliot

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