Frodsham Marsh Birding. 22.09.90. (Part One)

I’ve had many good birding days on the marsh over the years (and a few bad ones) but, one in particular stands out above the others. Already on a high from ticking off Yellow-throated Vireo, at Kenidjack, Cornwall three days previously. Mid morning of the 22nd September 1990 saw me and Steve Jones (equally competent son of Wirral birder John Jones) ploughing through the mixed flocks of wading birds roosting up during a big Mersey tide. The wind was strong with a menacing cloud belt approaching  from the North-West. The shorebirds consisted of 5,000 Dunlin with Grey Plovers, Knot, 30 Curlew Sandpiper, Turnstone and 15 of Frodshams signature bird the ‘Little Stint’, all of which required careful attention, after all it was September! As the day progressed our observation and interest began to waiver. At 2.15 pm, our attention was drawn to a bird quartering the fields behind us. During the morning a shooter had mounted a one man vendetta against the local Wood Pigeon flocks and he was knocking them off like there was no tomorrow (for numerous pigeons it literally was) and dead birds were scattered around the field. It was obvious it was a skua but which one? The dainty demure body, long narrow wings, pale grey plumage with black cap pointed to an adult Long-tailed. It lacked a tail but we considered this in identification, had both seen the species before and were familiar with all plumages of Arctic Skua.We watched the bird for 3/4 hour before heavily laden with pigeon pie it flew to the south-east, gained height and was lost to view high over Frodsham Hill. We both looked at each other like slack jawed yokels and a big grin spread across our faces. Within minutes it suddenly by magic reappeared on No 4 tank and chose its dessert of Lapwing. It was apparent the bird was unsettled and shortly after it took flight and headed to the Mersey Estuary.

Seabirds are seabirds  for a reason and although Frodsham is  in close proximity (17 miles from the Irish sea) we rarely encounter the wanderings of these ocean waifs. For example, it’s taken me 38 years to see all the skua species  within sight of Runcorn Bridge. So, to have the rarest one on my local patch was astonishing and my jaw was swinging and squeaking like an abandoned gas station sign in a dusty Arizonan desert. Steve and I couldn’t believe our eyes and no amount of rubbing them could erase this enigma before us. We hastily scribbled notes and field sketches to paper (see below). One of the highlights of being  young and impetuous birders is to bask in the glory of the find! To do that we needed to first put the news out, second put it out to the right people and beyond, and thirdly get the bird to hang around.

Fortunately for us it did! It was relocated the next morning on Frodsham Score where its culinary appetite had moved from game bird to lamb (was discovered feasting on a dead sheep): probably a victim of high tides on the river.

The story does not end there. We decided on a walk to the ‘corner’ overlooking the Weaver sluices (unfortunately, access to this area is problematic so it’s best worthy to avoid trespassing here nowadays). We settled tight into the bank to avoid the searing wind. Suddenly the omnipresent clouds broke rank and shafts of light poured out illuminating the river below. Just as our hands were turning from pink to blue a vision appeared from the Hale side of the river. That’s a big House Martin I thought? We watched the bird buffeted across the river. I couldn’t believe my eyes – the bird was a Leach’s Petrel! A Leach’s Petrel at Frodsham Marsh today of all days! It slowly made its way to within the area of the sluice gates flying the light fantastic. If I’ve ever had a spiritual moment then this was it! Because, our attention was fixated on this bird we almost missed the additional three Leach’s disciples break (water) dancing along the edge of Frodsham Score. My head was spinning and the air was punched with expletives. We met up with Steve and Gill Barber some time later and they had  enjoyed the ‘sea watch’ Frodsham scoring a Fulmar.

We chanced our luck and headed off to Neumann’s Flash in Northwich for a reported Buff-breasted Sandpiper but dipped it!

The following morning I was watching the relocated Long-tailed Skua on Frodsham Score. While in conversation with some birders two Arctic Skua flew from inland and headed out over the Long-tailed towards the sea. The only blip to the day was missing an Osprey heading south but you can’t have everything…can you?

Patch birding moments  like my 24 hours are exceptionally rare and are treasured memories. I hope you have had a day as good as mine? Please send me your Frodsham moment and I’ll put it on the blog.

Bill Morton