Blackcaps are all well and good - but not when you're after much rarer species!
So a female pied flycatcher - not quite as good as the male that turned up a little further afield for just one day the week before - was the target. But I checked every tree in the reported area, and found only unusually showy treecreepers, and huge numbers of willow warblers, along with the odd chiffchaff, goldcrest etc. A beautiful day to be out, nonetheless.
The number of warblers in the park is mind boggling at this time of year. This is a willow warbler.
The following morning my wildlife guru DJM texted me to say it was still there - so of course I rushed back. Always better to try and get a target species close to home. When I arrived, there were a few birdwatchers already there, but what was this? They were after three special targets - not only the flycatcher, but a wood warbler and redstart were in the same patch of trees. Elusive, however. Any one of the three would be good, so I hung around.
The first bird I saw was this fine sparrowhawk.
Many more bird folk were there over the course of the morning, and thanks to them I saw and photographed all three - three lifers in a couple of hours! Then DJM got a call (he'd popped down in his lunch hour) to say a whinchat was just round the corner. So I rushed across to the wetland reserve and... nothing. My first whitethroat of the year, and my first ever views (if only glimpses) of the ever elusive cetti's and grasshopper warblers. But another photographer had found it, and I joined him in searching the far end of the marsh. Then he saw it - I naively thought it was a distant wheatear (in my defence, the heat haze was extreme, and they are similarly coloured), and I got the most rudimentary shots. FOUR lifetime species in a day!
The irony was, DJM and I had planned a full day of chasing wildlife the following day (Friday). Not just birds - local lizards were the first target. But it's always good to feel you have nothing to prove from the outset - if we saw nothing exciting, I had already had an excellent week. Which is just as well, as the day started with several failures.
These pillbugs are only found at coastal sites this far north - they were by far the commonest animals on the dunes.
Dawn sunshine was quickly replaced by cold cloud cover, and no self respecting reptile was going to leave its burrow. We did see quite a few interesting invertebrates on the dunes, but that was it. Then to a wetland I've never visited, which yielded exhilarating clouds of sand martins (which kept landing in groups on the reed tops), but nothing rare. Then to Beacon Fell, a small hill covered in conifer plantations that's now a country park. We wanted tree pipits - but they were absent. Bilberry blossom attracted cold-hardy bumblebees, and the still misty air was filled with singing chiffchaffs, willow warblers, goldcrests, pigeons, blackbirds, robins, and even redpolls - but again nothing novel.
Bluebells are just beginning to take over the woodland floor.
Next to a local wood strung along a steep valley side. Hares and pheasants in abundance, and lots of nice plant life, but again the summer birds hadn't yet arrived. It was chilly, so not a surprise. The next wood, along an upland river, did yield DJM's first wood warbler (heard but not seen), noisy nuthatches, and a likely goldcrest nest, but most exciting was a mammal. A water shrew - not previously reported there, as far as I know - but as we only saw it due to a heron catching and eating it, so may not occur there now anyway.
Britain's only venomous mammal - but it's not much use against a hungry heron!
Then to another river, the upper Wyre. Here we hoped for kingfishers and dippers, but neither was seen. Down a track, we did find something that for me was far better though. In amongst the song thrush and blackcap sounds, a quieter bird - a garden warbler! My first lifer of the day. Having caught a glimpse, I was determined to try and photograph it, but it wasn't going to happen. Until, while my companion was photographing wildflowers, I saw a bird fly across the river. A photograph settled it - the warbler I wanted! I took as many photos as I could, since it fed in the open for a couple of minutes. Sadly the second batch were of a different bird, probably a chiffchaff - I must have got confused when I reattached the teleconverter - but at least my first shots were definitely of this elusive bird.
This species has, in my opinion, an unfair reputation for being plain. I prefer to call it subtle.
The final site was up in the hills. The local specialities - green woodpecker, redstart, tree pipit, wood warbler - were all absent. But we found the most special animal of the day, a gorgeous slow worm. I have never seen, let alone handled, a wild reptile before, and this was a great introduction. It wrapped itself around our hands and seemed mostly unconcerned while I took its portrait. We nipped up the valley to look for common lizards - these didn't show, but we saw a pair of ravens, a second lifer*.
Before returning to the car, I found a dipper on the stream for DJM - his first of the year. And then whimbrels flew overhead to their upland roost - mostly heard, but we glimpsed one in flight. Another addition to the year list!
So it's been a good few days.
*there were two crows on a high crag in the Lake District a couple of weeks ago, but they didn't fly, and I found the pictures inconclusive.