Sunday, 30 April 2017

Pallid Harrier in Whitendale near Dunsop Bridge

I haven't been out birding for a week or so now as I'm still coming to terms with that fact that my very expensive big Nikon 500mm lens is broken in two and awaiting collection by the insurers for assessment and further action.  However, the news of a Pallid Harrier showing well at Whitendale near Dunsop Bridge over the last couple of days has made it impossible for me to stay in any longer.

Fortunately I haven't sold my previous 300mm lens yet, as I'm at least keeping it until I've been to the Farne Islands later this year and back to Mull to see the White-tailed Eagles catching fish from the Mull Charters boat.  For both of these trips a long 500mm lens is just too big as the birds can be that close. I haven't used the 300mm since getting the 500mm, so today was going to be the time to reacquaint myself with it.  I'm afraid these are only really record shots as the bird was quite distant and the light wasn't great when it did appear.  I do wish I'd had the 500mm, today of all days.

I decided I'd also take my Nikon D500 and 1.4x teleconverter for testing, to see if the damage to the camera was merely cosmetic and didn't affect it's operation or performance. But as a backup I also had my D810 and two other teleconverters as I didn't want to miss getting a shot of this rare bird. As it happens, I only used the D500.

From previous reports I'd learnt that it was possible to cycle the three miles up the Dunsop Valley to Whitendale in order to reach the bird's location and so I also loaded my wife's bike into the back of my Freelander, as mine had a flat tyre. What a good decision that proved to be!

After a lovely drive through the Lancashire countryside I arrived at the little hamlet of Dunsop Bridge. It was very busy here, with the normal walker and day tripper numbers being swelled by the large crowd of birders who had turned up to see this rare bird.

As I cycled up the valley there were many birders returning carrying binoculars, spotting scopes and wide, beaming smiles.  I could tell from their faces that the bird had been showing well and I even said that to one or two of them.

The track up the valley was largely tarmac and ideal for cycling, right up to the point where it started to go uphill steeply.  I had to get off the bike and walk here on the pretence that I was 'just looking for Ring Ouzels', as up to six had recently been reported here. So after a steep but short uphill section I reached the viewing location for the Pallid Harrier, which had a good 360 degree view and which overlooked the Harrier's favourite spot on the fell.  I didn't time it but it only took me about 30 to 40 minutes to get to the right spot whereas those who have walked up on previous days have said that it can take anything between an hour to an hour and half depending on how fit you are.

As I decided to go late in the day, there were only a few people up here by then, and as usual I was told that I'd just missed a good sighting by a couple of minutes.  Actually I'm sure that I did get a brief glimpse of the bird as it quartered the fell before flying over the top, but then it was gone. People came and went, some without seeing it and it wasn't long before a large party on a birding fieldtrip arrived.

It was a good half hour before the bird reappeared, but then I had excellent views of it quartering the fell and flying down the valley.   It was a stunning adult grey male with very distinctive black markings on the tips of its wings. It seemed to do a bit of a hunting circuit and then disappeared again.

After another half hour or so it reappeared and at times was seen to be sky dancing and even carrying nesting material before dropping it in a specific place. I sort of felt sorry for this beautiful bird as it has virtually no chance of finding a mate here.  I also found it strange that it would start nest building before it had found a mate.

With the company of three lovely ladies, I stayed until nearly 7pm and by then the wind had got up quite a bit and the temperature dropped considerably. We got one last sighting before deciding it was time to head for home.  I felt sorry for the others having to walk back as I overtook them on my bike, but there was no way I could have given them a lift.  It only took about fifteen minutes to get back to my car and what a brilliant downhill ride it was!

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