Tawny Pipit, Whiskered Tern, Blue-winged Teal, Great Reed Warbler, American Black Tern, Canvasback & Black-faced Bunting…surly you must of got it with the last two birds ? Pennington Flash. In Greater Manchester you can find yourself a whole load of top quality birding sites: Elton Reservoir, Sale Water Park, Salford Docks, Audenshaw Reservoir and of course the one and only and most renowned birding site of all, Pennington Flash Country Park.
Here in the quiet town of Leigh on the outskirts of one of the monumental cities of the north lies a truly magnificent site. With its 170 acre lake made at the dawn of the 20th centaury to fill in a coal mine, it is now nationally renowned for its sheer array of birdlife as well as clearly demonstrating that mankind and the natural world can co-exist: Sailing, Golf, Fishing, Cycling, Running, Rowing and Windsurfing are all activities which you can embrace yourself in at the park whilst at the same time and at the same site being captivated by the parks biodiversity: Cetti’s Warbler, Goosander, Lapwing, Great Crested Grebe, Water Rail, Goldeneye, Bittern, Bullfinch, Little Egret and of course its star species Willow Tit. You might have guessed that with such a large site that has a wide array of habitats and is constantly under watch that it would of had a few surprises here and there, well your right: Long-tailed Duck, Nightingale, Sabine’s Gull, the UK’s first Black-faced Bunting, Spoonbill, Alpine Swift, Red-necked, Grey & Wilson’s Phalarope, Canvasback and Lesser Scaup to name a few. Despite Penny being the site it is I’ve only had the pleasure of making a handful of visits and after almost a year I thought it was about time I made the effort to get up.
Last October I headed up for a weekend to the RSPB’s Saltholme reserve in Cleveland for a RSPB Phoenix event. Besides seeing masses of waterfowl along with a rather nice Black-necked Grebe, I also met a young birder called Tom Wright from South Wales. It was after seeing him there that I actually realised that I had met Tom just 3 years before at RSPB Conwy for the same event, it was also at Conwy that met my longest birding bud Joel Tragen! Due to Tom living all the way down in Gwent we haven’t been able to meet up since October for a days birding together, but as he was coming north to Manchester for a weekend to watch the British Cycling Championships and had a day free, well perfect opportunity to show him round one of the norths top birding sites.
Unlike Tom who would have the luxury of getting up at 9ish to reach Pennington for our planned meet up at 10am, for me and Luke to get there for first light in order to attempt to see the 1st winter Glaucous Gull which had been present for 2 days it was a 5:30am wake up call which for us teenagers is more than a challenge! But we somehow not just woke up but shot up out of beds, met at Birkenhead Bus station for 6:50am before getting over to Liverpool before our train to Newton-Le-Willows and then yet another bus and a 10 minute walk till we finally arrived at little old Penny for 9am sharp!
On arrival Luke & I headed over to Horrick’s Hide to check out what gulls were about on the spit; the Glaucous Gull had been leaving between 8:30am & 9:30am so arriving at 9:00am it was a 50/50 chance of connecting with the bird; but when we entered the hide to find patcher John Tymon he delivered us the bad news that the bird hadn’t been seen whats so ever today. The news may have dampened the mood but our spirits were then lifted when Luke spotted a very lovely female Goldeneye which was right up to the Hide and well, despite the horrific lighting for photography we were still pretty happy with our results. Besides the beautiful Goldeneye which was a lifer for Luke and somewhat a scarcity round our neck of the woods on little old Wirral, there was still plenty of other birds about with a possible 1st winter Yellow-legged Gull, Shoveler, Goosander along with Pennington’s over wintering 1st winter (drake) Long-tailed Duck and 3 Scaup which even though they were on the other side of the flash, we couldn’t help but feel a little tingly.
After consulting the iPhone to see that we still a good half hour to explore Penny before Tommy arrived, the pair of us made a brief trip over to the Pegney’s Hide to see what was about over there at the feeders. There was your usual birds about: Teal, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Mute Swan, Dunnock, Robin & Bullfinch etc My favourite thing about Penny is that unlike most places you can get unbelievable views of virtually all of the species there, at one point there was even a Robin in the hide with us! Whilst Luke was captivated how close a male Bullfinch was, I was being equally captured by a Dunnock hopping out no more then a foot or so away from me. Dunnock’s to most people appear some what dull and not every interesting or exciting to observer, but to me there one of the best there are and I like calling them the “Striated Accentor”. Anyway as we were both busy snapping away the following words then came from Luke, “Elliot, is that a Water Rail?” my golly gosh…it was! Sulking in the dense dark undergrowth approaching us, a Water Rail. Unlike Luke I’ve seen plenty of Water Rail but nothing quiet like this, she (thickness of bill), was ever so slowly creeping up along channel of water straight up to the hide and didn’t have a care in the world; it was acting as if we weren’t even there. I was over the moon to have such privileged views of this somewhat mystical bird, but Luke on the other hand? Well he was shaking with excitement!
Following on from the best views of Water Rail I’d ever had the phone then went and well, Mr Wright had just missed the encounter of a life time and skipping to the car park to meet up you could imagine how…happy he was for us. To try and make up for his loss the three amigos headed off to go and see what we could spot over at the Tom Edmondson Hide. Entering the hide we had in our sights 3 Little Egret, 1 Shoveler, 4 Teal and 1 Woodpigeon and that’s all we had for the past hour, yet as time went on more and more started to turn up; a striking male Bullfinch made several brief viewings in the vegetation either sides of the hide, 3 Gadwall made a stop off a quick feed before departing, 1 Cetti’s Warbler occasionally erupted in the reeds and as they always are the most elusive bird there is. A Buzzard decided to perch up in a nearby silver birch and oh yeah, 2 Grey Herons were making one hell of a racket along with being observed on several occasions going to and from a conifers tree with sticks. It was all rather enjoyable but whilst I was watching a rather close in Little Egret, I noticed something in the corner of my view finder sneakily sliding between the reeds…WATER RAIL!!! It then performed unforgettable and classic “panic flight” as it fluttered across an open stretch of water into a vast clump of plant matter which gave Luke and Tom a window if just a few seconds to connect with the bird which they thankfully both managed to do, phew!
So that was Horrick’s Hide, Pegney’s Hide and now the Tom Edmondson Hide done and dusted, what next then…BUNTINGS!!!
For those of you who have ever visited Pennington or done research on the flash then I’m sure you’ll all agree with me in that by a flipping country mile, the Buntings Hide is without a shadow of a doubt the most exciting, surprising and all round number one hide which you MUST visit if you ever make a visit: Its well constructed, can hold a decent number of people along with that a wide array of birds come to feeders ranging from your normal Dunnocks, Great/Blue/Coal/Long-tailed & Willow Tit, Blackbird, Bullfinch etc. with even records of Yellowhammer, Brambling and Green Woodpecker with the occasional Sparrowhawk and Water Rail making a pass through.
When the three of us arrived it was all fairly normal as you’d expected it to be, everything was down feeding on the ground with the odd Willow Tit and Bullfinch here and there popping about, one women was fortunate enough to have brief views of a Water Rail run by. As Tom and I were over at one end of the hide photographing lovely ditty Willow Tit we heard Luke for the second time of the day alert us to the presence of a bird…SPARROWHAWK!!!! He belted across the hide, in a mad panic Tom and I were looking everywhere franticly to see where it was; was it a flyby by, was it male or female etc., where was the bird ?! But then we saw it, we saw the blazing orange of its eye, we saw the salmon pink breast and we those eye catching yellow sticks, we saw a male Sparrowhawk just 2 meters away from us with that and without hesitation I just fired away praying that my shutter fired and captured that priceless moment before it was over, and just as I went trigger happy the moment was over and off it went into the distance. The result is below and its not only the finest image I’ve ever been lucky enough to capture but also up there as one of my best.
For us that was it, the day couldn’t of gotten any better, that powerful yet brief encounter made me understand why this bird is admired by so many and now myself, Tom & Luke. I mean just look at those blazing eyes, they don’t just captivate you, you can feel them look straight into you. But unfortunately after this all of the action seemed to die down which was when we made our move and decided that we’d go and have a second session with the Long-tailed Duck which had thankfully swam much closer to shoreline.
Patrolling the east side of the flash admiring the scenery and stunning birdlife, the three of us were all of a sudden stopped in our tracks by a little red breasted Robin who just popped on the path up ahead and seemed rather photogenic. Holding back our advancement to try and get a few pics the little fella shot right back into the undergrowth were we lost him; but that then led us to a small pile of seed on a bare tree stump, so we waited….and waited…..and waited and surly enough we were given our reward of not just 1 but 2 Willow Tit! The delightful pair jolted about in the trees above making it pain to get the them in focus, but thankfully the little buggers finally hopped down right in front of us were we managed to tackle a few record shots before we lost track of the pair.
Finally making our way round the flash to a rather shabby hide and getting in before the heavens opened, we found ours self looking out of the hide to see the LTD happy drifting past without a care in the world. We managed to get a couple of shots but again only record nothing species like the Sparrowhawk. The LTD performed very nicely for us as it dived under, popped back to be harried by Herring Gulls whilst attempting to tag along with a flock of Goldeneyes before it got “surfaced” upon by badly behaving drake!
As it always is time fly’s when your having fun and oh my we were the time of our lives! Tom & Luke were totting up lifer after lifer whilst I was going trigger happy and being as excited as a 5 year old on Christmas looking through todays images and seeing what first class lens the Canon 400mm actually is. But just as the fun had begun the day was coming to an end as the light was starting to fade and soon enough it was time for us to say our good byes as Tom was getting picked up ready for tomorrows race whilst I and Luke had our train to catch. But to round the day off on a high we made our final pits stop at the car park to watch the 5,000 strong gull roost come in for the night and well, an evening at Pennington Flash watching thousands upon thousands of gulls flying is really a priceless encounter which improved only by having an adult Med Gull thrown in for good measures along with the 3 Scaup from early just swimming past just a few feet or so away from us!
So far my best day of birding in 2017 and highly doubt that it’ll get any better than this!
Thanks for reading,