Today I went birding in Heaton Park, Manchester for the first time with fellow 'Birds and their Habitats' class member Alan Flavell. Alan is a superb photographer and he volunteered to show me a few places in the park where good photographs can be taken. He has his own Flickr site here: Alan Flavell's Flickr Site
After calling for Alan in Whitefield, we drove to Heaton Park and entered via St. Margaret's Gate. Our first stop was for the main reason I wanted to visit the park - Alan knows a spot in the woods where Jays are very tame and will come down to feed on monkey nuts right in front of a photographer. It was a cold but very sunny November day, and the prospects for some decent shots seemed good.
As we were walking I remembered that the last time I was here was Boxing Day 2004, the day of the great Indonesian Tsunami - it was a snowy day here and we'd come to the park to go sledging down the usually grassy but now snow-covered slopes. Unfortunately on this day, my daughter Cathy hurt her leg by sledging into a tree, and we didn't didn't know it was broken until the following day when she couldn't walk on it and had to crawl across her bedroom floor! A day we'll never forget for all these reasons.
Armed with a load of camera gear and a bag full of nuts, Alan and I marched off into the woods in search of the Jays. After finding a good location for photos, we set up our gear and Alan threw a few nuts around the fallen tree trunks and mossy stumps that make such attractive perches for photographs. It wasn't long before there was some activity, with squirrels and Magpies appearing from all directions and a couple of Jays up in the trees.
During quieter moments the Jays would approach in stages, gradually getting lower in the trees until finally diving on to the ground to pick up a monkey nut or two. After a few failed shots at trying to get them as they went for the nuts when they moved far too quickly, I decided the best approach was to get them in the trees just before they made their final approach.
Later we tried a few other places in the woods as we chased the sunshine which filtered through the trees and we finally settled on a good spot where we had up to four Jays all coming down to within three metres. This was phenomenal for me - in the past I haven't been able to get anywhere near a Jay which is normally a very skittish bird. But here they were so tame!
Everything was going well until a dog appeared chasing squirrels, with the owner not far away. It was quite annoying because the lady could see all our gear and knew what we were doing, but she continued to let her dog run freely across our field of view instead of putting it on a lead. I'm afraid that sort of behaviour is what gets dog owners a bad name. Anyway, she eventually took the hint and we managed to get a few more shots.
After this enthralling encounter we walked down to an area known as the 'Dell' where a Mandarin Duck had been spotted recently. We didn't see it today but on the way there we met someone who told us that there was an escaped Harris Hawk sitting in a tree with a dead rat in its talons. After looking around for a while and thinking we'd missed it, a couple of people called us over to see it sitting in the branches. They didn't know what it was an so we told them and then spent a good fifteen minutes or so taking photos and chatting with them.
It was difficult to get a good shot of the bird because there were a lot of branches in the way and the light wasn't great here, but these are my first ever photos of a Harris Hawk in the wild, escapee or not.
Our last port of call for the day was the main boating lake. On the walk to the lake Alan pointed out a couple of places where a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has been seen, but we didn't see it today. I also recognised a small play area that Sarah and I used to bring our kids to when they were younger and I told Alan that my son Robert had first learnt to ride his little bike without stabilisers on the gently sloping park road here.
On the lake there were a few distant male and female Goosanders, a Cormorant, a Grey Heron, a few Moorhens and Coots, a Greylag Goose, some Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls and a few hundred Black-headed Gulls as well as all the feral white geese, Canada Geese and pigeons. It was packed with birds near the cafe, which probably provides a useful source of food for them.
Here we met the same couple who had shown us the Harris Hawk, and after talking to the cafe manager, they had been told that the Harris Hawk was known to be in the park and attempts were being made to recapture it - but not today.
I had a great time out and about with Alan at Heaton Park, and it's always really good to visit new places with someone who has local knowledge. I'd never have expected Jays to be so tame and I learnt a few tricks about getting good photographs of them such as using monkey nuts to entice them down from the trees.
So thanks for that Alan, and I'm already looking forward to our next birding trip somewhere.