WWT Martin Mere: Coming home

So, WWT Martin Mere.

Set up by the Waterfowl & Wetlands Trust back in 1972 were it was first named Holcroft’s Farm, this life changing reserve became later known as WWT Martin Mere when it was first opened to the public of both Great Britain and the World by WWT founder & the legend which is Sir Peter Scott 3 years later in 1975. Since then the site has become subject to one of the most inspirational hot spots in the UK and has provided ornithologists with an ever increasing amount of research and data relating to some of our most beloved winter visitors.

Lets take the clocks back, turn them back 11 years to the year of 2006 where at WWT Martin Mere something and if you’ve had the pleasure of visiting then imagine yourself walking to the top deck of the Ron Barker Hide on a picturesque summers day; the sun cracking the flags, a tropical blue sky without a cloud in sight and the backdrop being a wet grass land teeming with the wildlife of the Great British countryside, it doesn’t get much better than that does it ? In the summer of 2006 WWT Martin Mere held something truly special which captivated audiences from across the country and for the occasional person who’s first visit to the site it was (like mine!), then it would change their lives forever.

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The very pair of Black-winged Stilts which connected me to nature 11 years ago. It was then a 10 year wait till I would see my next Black-winged Stilts on the salt lake of Calpe, Spain. (Image: Bill Aspin – Bill Aspin’s Bird Blog)

The Black-winged Stilt (himantopus himantopus), is a scarce bird to the wetlands of the UK and going back over a decade they were even rarer. Yet to everyone’s surprisement a pair found themselves at WWT Martin Mere and before you knew it they’d built a nest and laid a clutch of eggs. With such a rare event taking place even the local press were going stilt mad and it was because of that reason that my mum saw on the news headline which read “Rare bird breeds in Lancashire” and with mum wanting us to become more outdoorsy and active it was soon enough a family day out to WWT Martin Mere. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to work out the exact date but all I know is that we visited in the June of that year. But anyway, no that very visit to WWT Martin Mere I came back a different person. I came back home that day touched by nature, a new lease of life was given to me and from that day forward 11 years ago I’ve got that one day at WWT Martin Mere to say thank you to for setting me on the path on which I’m still  following.

In mid January just several weeks before my 18th BIRTHDAY I realised that I actually had nothing planned! I was going to head to dads but he was away working which then left me with something to find back in good old blighty to do. If I were your average Wirral teenager then I’d head over to Liverpool with a couple of mates and get totally wasted; but I’m not your average Wirral teenager, I’m infact only one of two teenagers on Wirral who’s life’s are just dominated by Mother Nature. With just two weeks to go till the 8th of February I had a plan set in place, with Collage allowing me a day off I’d convinced mum to take me over to Lincolnshire to pay a visit to White-billed Diver which everyone but myself had seen, but with just one week to go it had departed and then it was time for Plan-B; a tour round north Lancashire to see Red-breasted Goose, Todd’s Canada Goose, White-fronted Goose (European & Greenland), Tundra Bean Goose and to finally tick what now seems to be my new bogy bird, Snow Goose, but can you guess what, just 2 days before all seemed to of disappeared! Panicking on what I could do with myself and fellow young Wirral birder Luke Anderson on the land mark 18th birthday, it suddenly it me I can’t believe I didn’t think of it early ,WWT Martin Mere! What’s more of a fitting place to go to than the place were my love for the natural world all started, the place were for the first time I’ll be birding from my Childhood into my Manhood.

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Oh what fun was it to be back here! After over an hour of hopping on and off trains and buses we finally arrived at Burscough Train Station for an hours walk through the beautiful Lancashire countryside spotting Whooper Swan, Red-legged Partridge, Reed Bunting and a Merlin! (Image – Luke Anderson)

Dawn was now upon the 8th of February 2017 and after hours of catching trains, buses and walking through the bitterly cold Lancashire countryside, myself and Luke had finally arrived at the entrance of the place were it all began, WWT Martin Mere. Walking through those doors and seeing the same birds I saw all those years ago, the Common Eider just brought back a wave of memories from my visits in my younger years. Yes I’ve visited he place many a time since my first visit but coming here on my 18th just made it that extra bit special, I felt more of sense of belonging and happiness than any visit I could ever recall. It just felt right.

For the days visit it was planned out that we’d go round the captive collections first before making our way round the hides to go and see the insane collection of waterfowl out on the world renowned Mere, as well as paying a visit to the Ron Barker Hide and hopefully seeing some Ruff & Tawny Owls! Captive collections like those held at WWT reserves such as Martin Mere, Slimbridge and Washington are often frowned upon by birders and other wildlife enthusiasts as a result of them being “cruel”, for “display ” and “profit” and yes they are for display and yes its what the majority of people who come to visit come to see so you get a profit. But with such  mind blowingly beautiful and fascinating birds such as the Red-breasted Goose, Blue-winged Teal, Baer’s Pochard & Common Crane, it captivates people and makes them see the true colours of Mother Nature, seeing such birds and many more simply inspires you go further. Wanting to protect, go out into the wild to see them for real and be a part of something greater, to myself and many others like that of fellow young birders such as the likes of the 2016 Martin Garner’s Young Birder Award George Dunbar, then they can serve a greater purpose. Such collections which allow you to get up close and personal to the birds also then allow you to gen up on your bird identification skills as I’m sure if you ask the majority of birders then they’ll agree with me in that the best way to learn is by being out in the field; by being out and in the collections then you can see features which you’ll remember and then put to use out in the wild such as female Blue-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback & Bikal Teal etc. For those who say that such collections don’t inspire people then my answer to that will be why are you reading this post ?

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Who wouldn’t be left changed after hand feeding a Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) ? It’s one of the most beautiful yet underrated birds alive! (Image – Luke Anderson)

 

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Garganey (Anas querqedula) – For an unexperienced Birder who has trouble identifying female birds like that above, then getting up and close like this proves a valuable method to improve identification skills.

After unpacking our cameras and having a bit to eat and drink myself and Luke then headed off for a patrol round the enclosures as this would be the first time Luke has ever visited the site and I was going to make sure that it would be a day he wouldn’t forget. Our first stop off was round to the Asian Waterfowl which included the likes of the unforgettable Mandarin Duck,  Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Bikal Teal and the Baer’s Pochard. Over the last couple of years the WWT have been taking much needed Conservation work to try and boost the population of Baer’s Pochard both in captivity and in the wild. The species now classed as Critically Endangered as of 2012 when between classed to Endangered in 2008 and between 2008-1994 with the last assessment of the species population deeming Baer’s Pochard as Threatened in 1988. With the population in such a dyer need of a boost with fewer than 200 birds left in the wild, the WWT set up a Captive Breeding programs at their HQ in Slimbridge as well as other WWT Reserves in which over a number years were raising brood after brood after brood. This is why its important to have places such as WWT Reserves to have a population on which to fall back on and when the wild population is in need of a boost then the captive birds can be used to assist them in both the short and long term.

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Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) – A bird which in the wild you rarely get close to, yet here in captivity when used to humans then they approach you without a care in the world and enables you to see the bristles on the edge of bill, which in the wild would you ever see ?

 

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Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) – We all know and absolutely fall in love with the drake whenever you see him, but lets not forget the hen. Grant she may not be as visually mind blowing as her mate but you have to give credit where credit is due and no one can deny the fact the she’s drop dead gorgeous.

With the Asian Pen out of the way it was time to make our way round to beasts of North America which besides normal Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Blue-winged Teal, Buffleheads, Emperor Geese, Trumpeter Swan and Canvasbacks, which in themselves were all pretty exciting to see and photographer despite the Scaups being asleep. The bird which done it for me in the North American pen was by a country mile were the Ring-necked Ducks; yes their not the most attractive of birds and look very much like there Pythia cousins the Tufted Ducks and Greater Scaup, but its the first time I’ve ever seen one and being able to see them up close then aloud me to actually see why there called “Ring-necked” Ducks along with other key features such as the banding on bill & the peaked head. I thought that I was enjoying myself but it was clear that Luke was having the time of his life and he seemed even more fascinated than any of the local school children who were on there way round the site on a school visit. If only my school had done this! From here we advanced forwards to the Wired and Wonderful pen which included the likes of Hooded Mergansers, Red-crested Pochard, Bar-headed Goose, Patagonian Crested Duck, Argentine Ruddy Duck, Pied Avocet, Cape Barren Goose and one of the first birds I ever recall seeing the Black Swan! My clearest and one of my youngest memories to WWT Martin Mere was when as a youngster I was wearing my Spider-Man Wellies on a cold and wet autumn day with the whole family and I headed over to the were the Black Swans were to go and feed them. But what I didn’t realise at the time was just how…”protective” Black Swans were so you can hazard a guess to what happened to my little legs.

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Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucllatus) – Same story as the Mandarin Ducks, no where near in the same league as the drake but the hen is undeniably beautiful in her own right.

Now here’s the interesting part because after 3 years of writing “Elliot’s Birding Diaries” something rather embarrassing and shocking has happened, I’ve run out of words to say! I guess its because I feel that I would repeating myself over and over again regarding mine and Luke’s adventure around the pens. So, in the mean time until we reach the “birding” part here’s a couple pf images that myself and Luke captured whilst going through the European, African & “Geese” Pens…enjoy.

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The most beautiful and stunning bird of the day, Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

 

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All that lying around in muck and sore elbows finally paid off with this smashing shot of a Marbled Teal (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

 

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My no.1 bird for the days trip, Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca)

Well I certainly hoped that you thoroughly enjoyed them, but now its time to get back to story and now we catch up to myself and Luke exploring the wild birds which WWT Martin Mere has to offer as well as its captive.

After finishing off the with the captive birds in the pens it was now time to head over the wild birds on the “reserve” side of the site. Here we were hoping to see some of the magic which takes place at the site such as its tens of wintering Ruff which numbered 60+ on our visit, hundreds of wintering Whooper Swans along with the tens of thousands waterfowl which is mostly made up of Teal, Wigeon, Shelduck, Greylag Geese and the star bird Pink-footed Geese which during autumn migration can reach as many as 70,000 birds! All this sounds brilliant, and it is but for us there was one bird which we were aiming to see and that was Tawny Owl. Having only ever seen 3 Tawny Owls in the past and with reports and pictures of the birds roosting near the Kingfisher Hides for several weeks now, it was all looking good for A). Me getting a decent pic of a Tawny Owl as well as B). Luke getting a long over due Tawny Owl tick. After having a sneaky pop into the brand new Discovery Hide were we had brilliant views of a Black-tailed Godwit and had our moods dampened by the site of a dying Whooper Swan, we then swiftly made our move in search of Tawny Owl.

After spending a good half hour here we then we made our move and headed towards our primary target, the Tawny Owl. With reports coming through that the bird was being seen regularly in the ivy covered trees near to the entrance of the Kingfisher Hide that was were we headed to and after seeing them here before in the “ivy covered trees near the entrance of the Kingfisher Hide” I thought that they’d be within the same group of trees as last time, but as we soon found out that was no longer the case. But after a painstaking hour of scanning every tree we could see, we just gave up and that’s when the shameless moment came when we were approached and then informed that yes…we had been looking in the “wrong set of ivy covered trees near to the entrance of the Kingfisher Hide” and thankfully we were directed over to the correct tree were surprisingly it was right in the open, but to counteract that moment of enjoyment we were dealing with extremely low lighting, shooting upwards into the sky and the bird was concealed within the Ivy. But anyway here’s the image…I’m not particully pleased with it so going down as a “record” shot.

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Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) – Despite being my best shot of the species its by far my worse from the trip

So with the Tawny now done and dusted we moved over back to the Discovery Hide and had a pop in at some of the new Screenings they has erected since my last visit. I won’t lie but the last time I visit which was roughly a year ago the site was looking like it had had its day and was looking a mess, but in that year period the place has just transformed and I’m made up that it has! After spending our last hour at the reserve we just spent a moment taking in the scenery before it was time to head back to station and call it a day and my what a day it was.

Thanks for reading,

Elliot.

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