Monday 14 June 2021

2020 - A Year of Patchbirding

 2020…..well where do I start? A year where social-distancing, lockdowns and tiers became the “new normalbut life felt far from normal for the majority of the year. Despite everything that 2020 threw at us, I still had one of my best years on patch; finding a 3rd and 7th for Cheshire and Wirral equalling my best total of species seen. If there was one benefit of working from home for the majority of the year, it was the ability to be able to do more patch birding than I have ever done before (even taking into account that I was unable to visit the patch for nearly 2 months in the Spring due to the first lockdown).

2020 saw me visit the patch on 167 occasions, smashing my previous years coverage. In total I saw 185 species (my joint highest total with 2016) and an improvement of six on last year. I added four new patch lifers in the form of Long-tailed DuckBlyth’s Reed WarblerBonaparte’s Gull and Sabine’s Gull, add to this a good selection of other species, it was a decent haul for a “quiet backwater” in the North West!


Patch Visits – 10

Species – 120

January was a bit of a slow burner on the birding front but got better and better as the month went on. I kicked off the new year on the 2nd with a good selection of typical wintering species including Cetti’s WarblerWater PipitCommon SandpiperJack SnipeGreat White EgretMerlinStonechatChiffchaff which were evident throughout the month – but the best being a ringtail Hen Harrier that I picked up hunting over Frodsham Score. An early start on the 3rd produced Tawny OwlBarn Owl and up to 4 Woodcock along CarrLane, whilst a loop of Hale Head allowed me to catch up with a few year ticks that I had missed the day before, including BramblingPochard and Tufted Duck. The 10th produced by first three Goosander (of what seemed to be a very good year) at Pickerings. The 19th produced a Green Sandpiperwhich was flushed from Carr Lane, whilst more surprising was a screeching Ring-necked Parakeet on the 24thThe 25thproduced some class patch birding, starting with a Tundra Bean Goose (only my 3rd patch record) which flew in calling from the east before completing a circuit of Hale Marsh and heading north. Persistent scanning of the “dark side” of the Mersey finally also paid off with distant views of 3 Cattle Egret and 20+ Whooper Swan whilst I also flushed a Short-eared Owl from along the Shore. I ended the day Gulling at Pickerings having endured some dire evenings at Hale Lighthouse, which allowed me to stumble upon a nice 1stwinter Iceland GullThe remainder of the month was uneventful, but with a nice selection of winter species about it was never boring. 


Patch Visits – 8

Species – 124

February saw a succession of strong winter storms which battered most of the UK, but gave the west coast a real pummelling. The 2nd saw my first Egyptian Geese of the year which were feeding on the edge of Frodsham Score. After a relatively poor winter for waders along my stretch of the Mersey, the 3rd finally saw the tides pushing some of the sizable winter flocks into my patch area – allowing me to pick up a couple of the more expected species – KnotBar-tailed Godwit etc. I finally caught up with the regular wintering Little Stint at Hale Marsh on the 14th, and my first returning Coot of the year were at Carr Lane Pools on the 16th (although the weather felt anything but Spring-like). After countless hours of scanning the Weaver Gates, the 16th finally saw my luck change as the Deo Gloria (dredger) flushed the long-staying Frodsham Long-tailed Duck along with a bonus couple of Goldeneye into the patch airspace. The strong north-westerlies also forced 2 Red-breasted Merganser and a Kittiwake into the lower reaches of the Mersey (both relatively scarce species to see on the patch). The 23rd saw my first returning Avocet of the year, and another ringtail Hen Harrier but otherwise it was a fairly stormy but quiet (on the birding front) end to the month.


Patch Visits  9

Species – 129

The weather systems from the Atlantic continued to funnel winter storms into the UK, and with the rise of Coronavirus cases across the globe (and associated lockdowns) I made the most of any available time to visit the patch. The 1st produced my first Corn Bunting of the year (which sadly seems to have now been lost as a breeding bird on the patch), my second record of Cattle Egret of the year, a couple of Short-eared Owl, a further ringtail Hen Harrier and a Common Scoter bobbing about in Mersey swell. The 7th finally produced a better gull (despite many hours spent scouring the flocks) in the shape of a 1st winter Caspian Gull. The 15th was productive with a smart male Greater Scaup flying over the Mersey before heading over to Frodsham (only my second patch record, and the second-year running having waited years for my first!) along with another Cattle EgretThe 21stproduced six Cattle Egret feeding on Ince Marshes (my highest count on/from the patch), and it surely is only a matter of time before their populations go along the same lines as Little and Great White (I still remember when both were megas!). The 22nd saw my last visit to the patch before the national lockdown – and it provided a much-needed boost in the shape of some Spring migrants  Northern Wheatear, my first Sand Martin and a nice group of 10 Whooper Swan on the Mersey. On the 23rd the National Lockdown was announced, and that was that – no more patch birding for the foreseeable future, although at the time I didn’t really appreciate how long it would be until I could return to the patch or do some proper birding again.


Patch Visits – 0

Species – 129

April is ordinarily one of the most exciting times of the year on patch, with the anticipation of every returning Spring migrant. But with the lockdown in place I had to resort to birding from my garden and wondering what I may have missed………


Patch Visits  13

Species – 152

With the national lockdown being extended well into May, I was left frustrated at what I may have missed during one of the peak birding times on the patch…..but stuck rigidly to the guidelines. I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated the mental health benefits of birding, or just how lucky I am to have Hale as my patch (I promise I’ll never whinge about it again…..even in the slow times!). As the lockdown was finally eased, I was able to make my first trip to the patch on the 16th. It felt amazing to be out again, and the birding wasn’t too bad either with plenty of common Spring migrants about topped up with a relatively late WhinchatLesser WhitethroatLittle Stint and SanderlingsAn early start on the 17th produced a host of new year ticks with Grasshopper WarblerLittle-ringed Plover (in what was a very poor year for them), the first of many Channel Wagtails, Curlew Sandpipers, 4 Eider (nice to catch up with some having missed a group of 30 in early May due to the lockdown) andCommon Tern (2020 turned out to be a very good year for Terns on patch). The next couple of days produced a good mix of Spring migrants, arctic waders and breeding species. The 21st was one of the highlights of the year (although tinged with a little frustration and mis-ID to boot). Starting at Carr Lane Pools I stumbled on a very smart Cuckoo, a species that can be incredibly hard to catch up with this late in the Spring. Walking to the bottom of a rather busy Within Way I could hear an unfamiliar Acro singing from the first set of busheswhich sounded like an “off” Marsh Warbler. Despite not being able to “see” the bird, I thankfully decided to at least record the song, just as a cyclist went past flushing it. I fired off acouple of Whatsapp messages suggesting a possible Marsh Warbler but with reservations”. In mega quick time it’s true ID was revealed as a Blyth’s Reed Warbler (potentially only the 3rd record for Cheshire and Wirral if accepted – in what turned out to be a phenomenal Spring for them in the UK). Frustratingly I was unable to locate it again that evening, or over the next couple of days – although a further possible bird was present at Wigg Island just a short hop over the Merseyjust a couple of days later. The remainder of the month produced a nice selection of late Spring migrants, including the 30th which produced a flock of 30+ Arctic Tern (one of my largest flocks on patch).


Patch Visits – 17

Species – 157

It was great to be out birding loads in June, with plenty of early morning and evening visits. There was a superb selection of birds including some late Spring migrants and Summer breeders in good numbers. Channel Wagtails seemed to be everywhere this year, and I identified at least 3 holding territory. Hobby seemed to be around regularly, Themonth started off well with my first “seen” Common Quail in donkeys’ years – well worth the early morning start and thorough drenching! Amazingly, considering numbers in the UK this year, this remained my only record for 2020 (continuing the downturn of the last couple of years). Yet another grey miserable start on the 7th produced a smart adult Little Gull and 2 Common Scoter. A very smart adult Rosy Starling at Frodsham had me spending a lot of time scanning from Within Way hoping for it to appear on Marsh Farm (the regret of not having shot down on it’s first evening, when it WOULD have been visible, was tangible!). The 13th saw the first small movement of Common Crossbill with 7 moving over, with further small groups seen throughout June. The 20thproduced another Little Gull (this time a 1st summer), but better still were 2 Corn Bunting in the wheat field along Lighthouse Lane – which may at least provide some hope that they aren’t totally lost as a breeding species. The evening of the 28th was pretty miserable – but did provide me with only my second record of Little Tern (despite having missed a number since my first in 2015) and one of my highest ever counts of Avocet with a flock of c.150 feeding on the Mersey.


Patch Visits  15

Species – 161

July was a bit of a mixed bag, with waders (with small numbers of Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Knot, Turnstone etc amongst the regularsstarting to increase in numbers, whilst a few early passerines were starting to move as well. Nuthatch were watched attempting to cross the Mersey, but despite a number of goes couldn’t quite pluck up the courage. An eclipse male Garganey was a nice find on the 15th, given their relative scarcity at Hale of lateBoth Whinchat and Redstart on the 17th were a nice surprise, whilst the 18th produced a Goosander on the Mersey off Hale Lighthouse. Sandwich Tern on the 20th was a good record, a species that is almost annual but quite easy to miss! Red Kite flew over Church Lane on the 25th, whilst the 27th saw the first signs of autumn visible migration with Tree PipitSiskin and Grey Wagtails on the move. The month ended with a Ruddy Shelduck found feeding on the Mersey off the Weaver Sluice, which went on for a prolonged stay around the Hale area.


Patch Visits  17

Species – 169

The month started well on the 1st with the first returning Wood Sandpiper, along with a patch “high” count of 8 Goosanderthat pitched down on Carr Lane Pools early in the morning.Strangely Goosander featured prominently throughout the month with further records on 13th, 31st. The Ruddy Shelduck took up temporary residence around Hale and was seen throughout the month, but could be surprisingly difficult to catch up with; clearly a genuine vagrant…..haha! The month ticked along nicely with a good mix of returning waders (KnotSanderlingGreenshankGreen SandpiperLittle StintSanderling amongst the regulars) starting to build across the patch alongside some migrant passerines including Tree Pipit (1st, 2 on the 8th12 (TWELVE) on the 15th, 31st)Whinchat (5th, 26th, 30th), Redstart (8th)Spotted Flycatcher (15th). An unexpected Osprey on the 11th was a bonus having missed out on the spring movers this year. A further Wood Sandpiper on the 12th was presumably a new bird although sadly didn’t prove to be as showy as the early August bird. Having not been away from patch for a long time, it was particularly galling to miss out on 2 Pomarine SkuaGreat Skua and Razorbill on the 21st!! However, all was not lost and having returned from a little break away I had a good evening on patch on the 26th with 3 Spoonbill flying around Frodsham Score, alongside 2 juvenile Black Tern and a Razorbill that was drifting out on the tide. By the end of the month the morning and evening visits were starting to feel decidedly chilly, so a Merlin on the 29th probably felt right at home! The end of the month also saw the increase in visible migration with numbers of SiskinGrey Wagtail and Tree Sparrowstarting to pick up. Overall an enjoyable month with a good mix of species, even before we moved into “peak” autumn migration.


Patch Visits  25

Species – 178

Well where do I start with September?! Another early start on the 1st had provided a nice mix of waders and a nice Redstart, but before I headed back towards the car I decided to check through the gull flock just to the west of the Lighthouse as usual. The Gull flock that had been building over the last week (feeding on the recently cut stubble fields and then roosting and preening on the Mersey) were nicely spread out about 100 yards away across the nearest channel. The flock had seen an increasing number of Mediterranean Gulls over the preceding days, so I decided to see how many there were today. Scanning through I counted 3 Mediterranean Gulls, before I picked up a small winter plumaged larid preening with shortish pink legs and black bill which I immediately identified as a winter plumaged Bonaparte’s Gull. Although Bonaparte’s Gull has been one of my target species for many years, it still didn’t prepare me for the rush of adrenalin or panic of what to do first. I took some rushed pictures and video, but the early morning light and rush of adrenalin causing me to shake meant that my iPhone was struggling to take anything decent. I quickly sent a WhatsApp message to the local birders and posted a twitter message with a video attached to both RBA and Birdguides. Frustratingly none of the local birders on the Whatsapp group responded to say that they were on their way and I knew with it being midweek that many would be working. Having watched the Bonaparte’s for nearly 40 minutes (roughly 7.35am-8.15am) I had to leave for work and unfortunately attempts to relocate the bird over the coming days were unsuccessful……but what a bird!! The next couple of days were a little calmer with a regular mix of wadersgulls (including Yellow Legged Gull and Mediterranean Gull) and passerinesThe 8th was frustrating and exciting in equal measures, having decided to go to Pickerings for a change instead of the Lighthouse I had a relatively productive evening looking through the Gulls (with up to 3 Yellow Legged), but decided to head home instead of popping to the Lighthouse….big mistake as Iggy picked up a cracking juvenile Sabine’s Gull flying east past the Lighthouse. Amazingly it was relocated the following morning by Sean O’Hara on the stubble field along Lighthouse Lane…..moving some meetings around I shot down at lunchtime to get great views of the Sabine’s Gull and to make things even better a fem/juvenile Pied Flycatcher was feeding in the end garden of Church Lane! The Sabine’s Gull remained for the next week (last being seen on the 15th)and drew a constant stream of admirers. The 10th produced a juvenile Kittiwake in the same field, whilst the 11th saw a Lapland Bunting flying around with the various larks, pipits and flavasThe 12th saw a Guillemot on the Mersey – nearly as rare as the Sabine’s Gull for numbers of patch records! By mid-month I was starting to focus my visits on vismigging – however the early starts and pre-vismigging checks along CarrLane were rewarded with Short Eared OwlTawny Owl but best of all a Bittern (19thonly my 2nd ever record. The vismigwas steady, if unspectacular – but did provide the highest day counts of Meadow Pipit (313 on 19th), Corn BuntingYellowhammer and numbers of finches starting to increase. A female Common Scoter on the 27th was a good record in what was a generally poor year for them. Strong winds on the 25thproduced a juvenile Gannet, but sadly no Leach’s Petrel this year. The 29th saw my house being ripped apart by theplumber, so I decided to get out of the way and head to Pickerings for some gulling – which proved lucky when I picked up what looked relatively good for a 1cy Caspian Gull– a nice end to a pretty adrenalin filled month!



Patch Visits  20

Species – 185

October was pretty much all about vismig, with a few additional day and evening visits thrown in. The 1st produced a good evening Egret roost into Hale Decoy with at least 7 Great Egret and 74 Little Egret – a sign of the times and hard to believe how their populations have grown so quickly! My first Redwing of the autumn finally appeared on the 2ndOctober, but it wasn’t until the end of the month and well into November that the proper numbers started to build. The 4thproduced 3 Crossbill and Pale Bellied Brent Geese – both nice records for Hale. Vismig on the 8th started well with a Yellow Browed Warbler appearing right next to my vismigposition (and it or another was seen in exactly the same spot on the 14th), whilst a full days coverage of the patch also picked up a Firecrest and my first returning Jack Snipe of the winter. My annual injury (or what feels like it!!) was some strained ankle ligaments, thankfully it didn’t really affect my vismig. The 13th produced the first decent vismig record with a Hawfinch which headed through ESE. The 15th saw me dipping a Ring Ouzel, but wader numbers were really starting to build with up to 10,000 Dunlin, however disappointingly the hoped for roosts seemed to stay on the “wrong” side of the Mersey. grounded Hawfinch on the 18th was nice, although remained elusive feeding in the end garden of Church Lane. Whooper Swans became a regular feature of the morning vismig sessions, with small groups seen most days. An unplanned visit to Pickerings on the 26th was lucky producing a female/1cy Ring Ouzel in the control meadow. The first returning Water Pipits started to appear at Carr Lane Pools, but compared to previous years remained difficult to pin down. Storm Aiden (the first storm of the winter) battered everyone overnight on the 30th and produced the goods at Hale with an Arctic Skua (my 2nd patch record), Great Skua (5thpatch record) and my 2nd Guillemot of the year. A nice way to end the month!



Patch Visits  19

Species – 185

Octobers vismig had been steady if unspectacular mainly due to unfavourable weather conditions, but with good numbers reported elsewhere I perseveredThe 1st produced 2 Corn Bunting (a slightly unusual autumn record), whilst the 5thproduced 2 Hawfinch and 7 Yellowhammer moving SE. The 6th produced another Hawfinch as well as 2 Water Pipit over, whilst it was nice to finally catch up with the Nordic Jackdaw that had been found a couple of days earlier. Finallythe 7th was THE big day of movement, with almost perfect conditions (light SE’lies, and clear sky to the south) produced Hawfinch and a Ring Ouzel amongst over 11,000 birds seen migrating! Annoyingly this was pretty much the last day of decent conditions, so my focus turned back to the rest of my patch with the majority of the winter species now back. The 15th produced a frustratingly brief Wheatear sp. which I flushed from the track at the back of Burnt Mill Farm never to be seen again. Given the late date there is every chance that it could have been something a little better than Northern! The remainder of the month was spent enjoying plenty of the winter specialities available on the patch – MerlinJack SnipeWater RailCetti’s WarblerWater PipitHen HarrierGreat Egrets and loads of Pink Footed Geese.



Patch Visits – 14

Species - 185

December continued where November left off, with plenty of visits producing the expected mix of winter species. I spent a lot of time gulling at Pickerings and Hale Lighthouse, which sadly failed to locate any white-wingers (other than Mediterranean Gulls!). The Common Sandpiper had taken up residence along the shore at Pickerings, whilst the 24thproduced Cattle Egret flying west over Frodsham Score (presumably one of the birds that spent the majority of the winter at Ince). Although December never really produced anything “amazing” the sunsets were truly amazing, adding to that the constant soundscape of winking Pink footed Geeseexplosive bursts of Cetti’s Warblerswhistling Wigeon and Tealwhinniying Peregrine and the chattering sounds of waders, there are few places I would prefer to be during the winter!


2020 Summary

So despite missing out on two months of birding on patch, I more than made up for lost time throughout the rest of the year. The first couple of months produced some big winter storms, which helped to provide some storm-driven species that can ordinarily be difficult to catch up with. Gulling in both winter periods was poor, but was more than made up for with both Bonaparte’s and Sabine’s Gull in Autumn, fingers crossed that 2021 produces more of the same.

So what did I miss out on in 2020? Amazingly I didn’t miss out on much during the Spring when I was confined to the house (although this may have been in part down to reduced observer coverage during this time), however throughout the year I still managed to miss out on some real quality – ShagWhite-fronted GooseBewick’s SwanPomarine Skua x 2, Honey BuzzardGoshawkLong-eared OwlRichard’s PipitTwite and Common (Mealy) Redpoll. Add the FrodshamRosy Starling into the mix (which I would almost certainly would have been able to see if I had made the effort to go down on the first evening when it was sat on top of Marsh Farm) the list of species is pretty impressive/depressingdepending on whether your glass if half full or empty!

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