11.03.13. A Day to Celebrate in Many Ways by Stuart Maddocks
It was 2 pm when I left the hospital after my appointment. I had some encouraging news even though I needed to go for another scan. The main man with his plan was happy with my progress.
Being on a natural high after my news I got home and immediately reached for my trusty Nikon camera. The sun was shining and it would be a shame to waste the precious light that today was promising. I made a decision and as it happened it would be a decision that would stay with me for a very long time and see Spring turn back to Winter!
Waxwings were my first thought after hearing about a flock at the M56 service station near Helsby. To take a photograph of Waxwings against the blue sky would be a fantastic idea so off I went with good prospects ahead. Unfortunately my good plan and spirits soon dwindled with empty trees and no Waxwings for me to point my camera at. I left empty-handed but still confident I headed for the marshes.
I have recently been using the pot-holed track from Ince to access the marsh. Close to the marsh access point is often a large flock of Curlew by the pig farm and their evocative calls are a firm favourite of mine. I wasn’t to be disappointed and sure enough the Curlews were there and I snapped away happily with the haunting calls echoing all around me.
The distant sky was laden gun-metal grey and snow had been forecast since last night. I went down the bumpy track with a male Hen Harrier upper most in my mind (a bird I was fortunate to capture on my camera recently). I reached Rake Lane where the Whooper Swans have been showing but alas only the Mutes were present. Never mind, I thought and wound up my ‘chuggabug’ car and set off down an even deeper and more bumpier part of the track.
Eventually, I reached the halfway point along Lordship Lane to what I call the ‘crossroads’. A large flock of what looked like Chaffinch were zooming in and out of the field to the rear of the model aircraft hut. This is always a good place to sit off and wait a while. I have seen Sparrowhawks hunting along the hedges here on many occassions. I waited, and sure enough soon the finch flock were spooked by a large grey shape. I chuckled and grinned to myself, it was the male Hen Harrier out for his dinner served in the shape of finch and lark buffet.
The beautiful afternoon sun had now been replaced by heavy dark clouds and the wind had picked up ten fold. Suddenly the snow was falling heavily whipped into a frenzy with a terrified finch frantically pursued by the harrier on its tail. Three times the harrier attempted to catch the agile finch but each time he just missed out. I could see how pale he looked against the snow storm, his yellow eyes and talons catching the remnant light. Eventually the finch won the day and the raptor soon tired and a pair of crows made sure his pride was further dented scolding and chasing him onto No 6 tank. Peace soon returned and the finches relaxed and tweeted in glee at their short victory. I noticed a paler finch amongst the flock and took a photo. The snow was still falling heavily but I could see how yellowish the bird’s flanks were… was this my first Brambling?
An atmospheric glimpse of the Hen Harrier emerging ghost like from the snow storm to spook a mixed finch and skylark flock from the stubble field on Lordship Marsh.
…and just incase you missed it on the first image.
The snow really was falling heavily now and the M56 motorway and it’s cars had disappeared hidden by the snow storm – it was time for me to go. The ‘chuggabug’ is certainly no 4 x 4 and the track is fairly muddy at the best of times but coupled with snow it was squeaky bum time. Off I trundled glowing with pride at my new spots.
The track turned out to be lethal and twice I nearly put the van in a ditch. When I eventually reached the old UKF plant the road got better. I wasn’t hanging about as the sky was threatening and turning black and full of snow, I really needed to get a move on if I was going to get off the marsh safely. Just as I had entered a very tight bend along a stretch of the lane, a large brown shape rose and flew 30 yards in front of my headlamps… OWL! I exclaimed slamming on the brakes. I was in luck for the bird was intent on catching a bunting or two for its supper. The large brown shape landed and I let rip with my camera a little in fear that the bird would fly off even though I was confident my luck would holdout. Sure enough after 10 seconds of me making clicking noises with my camera the owl cut it’s loses. The bird took off and flew into the industrial gloom and out of sight. I took a breath and was sure I had just seen my first Long-eared Owl? I would need clarification but I was confident that the two tufts were a very promising feature for it.
I jumped back in the van with a massive smirk spread across my chops and drove off down the snow-covered lane bouncing and buzzing all along the track. Not a wasted day but a day to celebrate in many ways.
I sent BIll and my good birding mate Mike King the images and they soon confirmed my suspicions and like a happy striker I punched the air with glee. 47 years and 7 Christmases had come all at once on the marshes.
All images by Stuart Maddocks.
Spring is typically the time to find a Long-eared Owl on the marsh and invariably they are found sitting on the outside of a Hawthorn or Elder bush by a reedbed. Eds