RSPB Burton Mere - 12 Oct 17

Here is just part of the excellent RSPB reserve at Burton Mere on the Wirral, looking here towards the Welsh foothills.

The view is somewhat ‘industrial’ in places but the birds don’t seem to care.

A speciality of the Wirral Estuary area is the wintering Pink-footed Geese that leave their breeding grounds in Iceland to winter with us. Not all have arrived as yet but here are four birds, two of them hanging a ‘pink leg’. Smaller than Canada Geese or Greylag Geese.

This is the type of goose party we are used to seeing – Canada Geese with the white chin-straps – just five here; and the smaller Greylag Geese with the yellow/orange bills and pale in the upper forewing. Any Pink-footed Geese would have mostly dark bills and a less pale area in the forewing.

As they bank the light really catches the pale in the upper forewings of the Greylags.

And note the rather more extensive white in the upper-tail on Greylags. This can be a useful ID feature when a flock is flying directly away from you.

Not an easy bird to recognise in this plumage: this is a first-winter Shelduck. The white at the base of the bill draws attention from the more ‘normal’ features of the chestnut in the wing and the bottle-green of the head.

A party of Shoveler in flight.

Here two ducks and two drakes.

Well it is a Cattle Egret so you would expect to find it with cattle. Seems to have found a tasty frog or toad to eat. This species bred at this reserve for the first time this year. Last year birds present in Autumn moved on when the cattle were brought indoors for the winter. Clearly they returned once the cattle were put out again in the Spring.

Because it is a long way away and fighting its lunch it is not easy to see the detail. Separate this species from Little Egret by the yellow bill and the ‘jowl’ under the bill when seen in silhouette.

Two waders to get to grips with. There are some clues to help identification. The head is rather small; the neck is rather slender; the orange-based bill is of medium length; and the legs are orange rather than, say, Redshank red. The most helpful clue for me however is the way the rather large feathers are ‘ruffled’ by the breeze. They are Ruff. (that is not why they are called Ruff – that is because the males get an extraordinary and colourful ruff of neck feathers in the breeding season, but it help keep the name in mind) [the other birds are Lapwing of course].

Note the neat pale edges to those large back feathers.

Joining one of the Ruffs and Lapwings is a wader with a long bill – a Black-tailed Godwit. These winter in some numbers on the reserve and the estuary. This bird shows orangey tone on the neck which tells us it is a first winter bird. The similar-sized Bar-tailed Godwit has a slightly upturned bill (and would be unlikely at this date anyway as it migrates through rather than over winters).

And here is a closer Bar-tailed Godwit. Note the central back feathers are uniformly grey as they all will be when the moult to winter plumage is complete. The other feathers are retained juvenile feathers – the orange was on the neck ages this bird.

Another view: note how it can open the bill tip.

Here in close-up we see the tongue at work too.

An adult with a grey neck behind the orange-washed first-winter bird.

Here the orange-washed first-winter Black-tailed Godwit feeds in front of a feeding (Common) Teal – we see its green speculum. Just a few new barred feathers of this drake have grown so far.

Another wader puzzle. The Lapwing give useful size comparison that leads to the identification of our smallest wader – Little Stint. There are several similar species, none of which is at all common and certainly not likely in October.

A Green Sandpiper. Somewhat larger and darker on the back than a Common Sandpiper. It lacks the white extending up the shoulder. Shows fine spotting in the edges of the wing feathers. A few of these birds stay all winter in ice-free habitats even around Telford.

Another view with the exposure rather better for the bird – if not the background.

A circling Peregrine Falcon caused havoc amongst the ducks the waders, many of whom took to the sky. It is not true they would be safer on the ground – I was watching a group of waders through a telescope in Cornwall on one occasion when one of the birds ‘disappeared’ and the adjacent birds hardly noticed the Peregrine shoot through and take a bird standing alongside them.

And here are some of the Lapwings panicking.

Despite their distance these two birds are easy to identify once you know the species well. A male (on the left) and female Stonechat. Nothing else has this ‘jizz’ when sitting up scanning for prey.

Not the best of backgrounds! The Common Darters – here a male – were basking in the warmth from the sun on the boardwalk that is covered in a metal grid to prevent slipping in wet weather.

(Ed Wilson)