Sunday, 17 January 2010

Caerlaverock and Gretna Starling Roost

Gretna Starlings gathering. (photos courtesy of L G member)

Caerlaverock beginning to thaw!

16th Jan. It was the RSPB Local Group trip to Caerlaverock today. With a forty-nine seat coach booked because of demand, it had been a little disappointing to see almost twenty members drop out (mainly) because of the poor weather. Some had given in almost two weeks ago, which seemed a wee bit pessimistic to me! I was beginning to wonder if they had received information from the heavens of pending doom on the 16th January! Anyway the twenty-four keen birders who did go had plenty of room to stretch out and relax, and in the event, after we had left the heavy rain behind everyone was rewarded with cold, but dry and bright conditions on the Solway, with the sun putting in an appearance from time to time. Signs of the recent conditions were still apparent, with stretches of the pathways on the WWT Reserve holding pools of water which covered treacherous patches of ice. A stark reminder to be careful came with the news that a member of staff was presently in hospital nursing a broken leg having fallen on this ice! Much of the water on the reserve was only just beginning to thaw.

Flocks of Barnacle Geese were seen as we approached the reserve along with large numbers of Oystercatchers and a small flock of Redwing. We found the geese on this occasion to be more dispersed than usual although there were still plenty of them to see. As we entered the reserve there was large flocks of House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Yellowhammer with smaller numbers of Goldfinch, Brambling and Reed Bunting. I don’t think I have ever seen so many Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer in one flock and they had clearly been drawn to feed laid down on the reserve. I was in no real rush to go and watch the Whooper Swans being fed, so instead stayed behind to watch these flocks of birds. I only ever did get a fleeting glimpse of a Brambling. I then climbed the Tower Hide which gave a different perspective on these birds as well as good views of the returning Teal, Wigeon and Mallard. Many of these birds had been forced to leave frozen pools in the previous weeks and were now slowly returning. Many of our members saw Water Rail from this hide later in the day. This hide also gives a good view over the pond where the Whooper Swans were being fed along with the odd Mute Swan.

I then made the walk to the far hide not passing too much on the way. There were of course more flocks of Barnacle Geese with the odd Pink-Footed Goose amongst them and Curlews were seen from the small hides. The Barnacle Geese were constantly on the move in small parties and Whooper Swans flew overhead from time to time. Little was seen in the hedges except at feeding stations where the majority of birds seen were Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Robin, Dunnock and Reed Bunting. One or two members found Siskin. Roe Deer and Brown Hare were seen from the hides as were the occasional Lapwing, Grey Plover and by some Golden Plover. The fact that the pools were just thawing meant that the reserve was quiet and there were no raptors seen apart from the occasional Common Buzzard and a female Merlin was described by three of our members. Apart from the Barnacle Geese, the most often seen birds were corvids! I'm mindful that 25,000 Barnacle Geese, the entire population of Svalbard over winter on th Solway. In the 1940s this number was down to less than 500!

After having some lunch I retraced my steps and headed for the hide nearest to the Solway coast line. There was a biting sting in the air here although we were well sheltered on the pathways. I found a handful of Fieldfare from the hide here and noted the large numbers of Shelduck along the coast. There was also a very large flock of Knot on the sea edge in the distance. They occasionally lifted and gave a good show. Being some way away I struggled to estimate numbersm but there was certainly many hundred. Grey Heron and the odd Pheasant put in an appearance. I eventually made back to the entrance where the flocks of sparrows, finches and buntings were still around in large numbers. We noticed piles of snail shells at regular distances on all of the paths and I assumed supplementary feeding had been going on during the freeze. I took a look for the Water Rail but it was no where to be seen and I found that this left me no time for a cuppa before we left for Gretna in the hopes of watching the Starling roost.

We reached Gretna in plenty of time. Members seemed to be reluctant to get off the coach. Maybe it was just too comfortable! I got off anyway and left them to decide whether to follow or not. Large skeins of Barnacle Geese were seen in the distance, certainly thousands blackened the sky and this seemed to prise some people from their warm seats. It was quite a sight. I had been told at Caerlaverock that many of the geese had been feeding further away than is usual and I assumed that these were those birds retuning to roost in the Solway. It remained dry and it seemed a little warmer as I went into the services to use the conveniences. When I returned I was told, you’ve missed the Starlings. In fact small numbers were just beginning to fly in. I felt that some members who had not experienced this display before were underestimating just how grand it could be. Many were soon in awe as they watched the numbers of Starlings build up and blacken the sky with what I always compare to a magic carpet! It was not quite as exciting as the display I had watched last year when everything occurred directly overhead, but it was pretty close to equalling it. We watched the twist turns and manoeuvres for approaching thirty minutes before the magic carpet suddenly disappeared into the trees. Some one had commented on the nosie from the Starlings flight and I reminded them of the name of murmuration which is used to describe these flocks of Starling. A Peregrine Falcon had flown into the mass of birds on at least three occasions and Common Buzzard and Kestrel where up there too. It certainly is a magnificent sight. Everyone returned home with a smile on their face, even those asleep on the coach. The bird list came to 60 species. I’m hoping someone will send me some photos of the Starling roost. If they do, and they are any good, I’ll add them later. The fair weather birders will be told what a good day we had.;-)

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