Thursday, 12 April 2012

In Search of the Great White Egret (in Abram)

Tim Wilcox?
I spent a great day out at the Abram Flashes to the south of Wigan today, most of the time with fellow (but much more experienced) birder Tim Wilcox, whose avatar on the Manchester Birding Forum is David Suchet of Inspector Poirot fame (and boy does he look like him!).  The sun was shining and the sky was blue with some wonderful fluffy white clouds - I even got a bit sunburnt! We had both gone out in search of the Great White Egret which had been reported here several times in the last few days, and so we really were expecting to see it.  More of that later.

As I parked at the Dover Lock pub rear car park, where the landlord kindly allows birders to park, I was greeted by the sound of Chiffchaffs and Great Tits. And as soon as I set off walking along the towpath under the canal bridge, I was met by two Mute Swans on the Canal, a Grey Heron flying over and a couple of Blackbirds in breeding mode. 'A good start', I thought to myself.

The first pool you see from the canal is Dover Basin, where I managed to miss the Osprey which stayed around here for a few days in 2010 (grrr - it still gripes with me). On the water there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes, some Tufted Ducks, Coots and Mallards. On my way down the steps to the excellent new footpath which has been created along the bed of a old long-disused railway line, I could hear a Willow Warbler - my first of the year.  Not only did I hear it, but I also got a great view of it for a couple of minutes, but not long enough for me to get my camera out for a photo.  There were also quite a few Lapwings on Lightshaw Meadows.

I'd been down to Lightshaw Meadows in late January this year, when Pete Alker from Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust led a short 4.5 mile round trip from Pennington Flash on their 'Big Garden Birdwatch' day.  He'd explained the work that was going on here to revert the meadows back to their natural state and how Longhorn cattle were being introduced as part of the process. The Longhorns will be instrumental in 'conservation grazingin order to make the meadow more suitable habitat for bird species such as redshank, lapwing and snipe.  I could clearly see fifteen or so of them doing this from quite a way off today.

Longhorn Cattle

Shortly after this I met Tim on the footpath, who was also in search of the Great White Egret, but with no success so far. We introduced ourselves and had a nice chat about all things birding, and in the process exchanged phone numbers so that we could text each other should one of us find the bird. I then set off for the new viewing screen at the western edge of Lightshaw Hall Flash, whilst Tim headed back up to the canal towpath to look down on the small pool on the northern edge of the main flash, which is mostly hidden from view down here.

As soon as I approached the viewing screen, I could see a white shape on the far side of the Flash and so it was with some excitement that I took out my binoculars to get a better look. Unfortunately, it was not the Great White Egret for which I was hoping, but a Mute Swan preening itself in a small depression in the ground.  Soon another swan bobbed it's head up, followed by three and then four Greylag Geese.  'Oh well, there's still plenty of time left to find it', I thought.

Alert Male Wheatear

The viewing hide is in a lovely location, but it really needs a spotting scope to view the Flash as the birds are still quite some distance away.  Fortunately I had brought mine with me, and so my camera stayed in it's bag for most of my time here. With my scope I could see two Oystercatchers, four Shelduck, many Lapwing, a few Teal and several Black-headed Gulls.

Two male Wheatears

After 45 minutes or so I was joined by two fellow birders also in search of the Great White Egret and together we saw two distant Buzzards, some Redshank and my best sighting here, a pair of male Wheatear which came quite close and which forced me to eventually take out my camera for some pictures. Still no Great White Egret though.

My closest and clearest view ever of a male Wheatear

By now Tim had gone back to the car park for his sandwiches and returned to join us at the viewing screen.  We went on to see a Curlew which flew over the screen making a shortened call and a Reed Bunting as well as closer views of the Wheatear.  When the two other birders left, Tim and I decided to walk round to the new viewing screen on the eastern side of the Flash via Lightshaw Lane.  It was a fair walk round, but on the way we saw Yellowhammer, Goldfinches, Skylarks, a House Sparrow, Blue Tits, Mistle Thrushes, a solitary Pied Wagtail and a Jay flying through the woods at the end of the lane.

The view at the eastern viewing screen was a little disappointing being somewhat restricted by early flowering Blackthorn bushes which have only been partially cut back to allow a small viewing area through the middle.  It has probably been left this to maximise the camouflage of the screen and any birders there, and thus minimise any disturbance to the birds, but it doesn't make viewing easy, particularly when all the birds are still some distance away.

Tim and I spent more time looking the other way where we had great views of the two Buzzards coming in to land in their nesting tree, a Jay which did an extended flypast across the fields behind us and a very vocal, low hovering Skylark which eventually dropped to the ground right in front of us. Still no Great White Egret here though!

On the way back along Lightshaw Lane I spotted a Black-tailed Godwit and a Redshank on the Flash and, when Tim trained his scope on them, there turned out to be three Godwits and three Redshank splashing around in the water.  The view from here is one of the best in this area and probably better than the eastern viewing screen.

Having made an appointment to meet Mike Baron at Rixton this evening, I had to leave Tim still looking for the Great White Egret at this point and as I bode him farewell he spotted a Kestrel in the distance, whilst I saw a Wren along the lane and had a great view of a low flying Jay on the main road back to the car.  It seems Tim went on to meet up with some other birders later in the afternoon, but the Egret wasn't seen by anyone here today, although a Kittiwake did fly over Dover Basin.

Back at home in the evening, I updated the Abram Flashes map on my Where-2-See Birds website with details of the parking spot, suggested walking routes to the viewing areas and some of the sightings I had today.  Here's what it looks like now:

View Abram Flashes Bird Sightings in a larger map

A great place and a fantastic day out with a nice fellow birder. Now that's what it's all about, isn't it?

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