Saturday, 29 October 2011

Rough-legs in the gloom

I hadn't planned on going to the reserve yesterday, it was a pleasant morning's weather and a Friday and I had decided to stay at home and catch up with some work in the garden. However at 11.30 the reserve's other Vol. Warden, Rod Smith, rang to say that he was out there watching now two Rough-legged Buzzards.
I decided to have a bit of early lunch and then pop out there, it seemed a nice day for it.

I arrived at the reserve barn just after mid-day to find that what had been a nice drop of weather in Minster was dull and murky out there but I immediately had a ring-tail Hen Harrier come gliding past me, which was a great start! I began walking across the middle of the reserve towards the Tower Hide, mainly to avoid the mud on the main track. The grazier had just been there and had pushed all the cattle herd across the reserve, via the track, in order to take the cattle temorarily off the reserve to split the calves away from their mothers to be weaned elsewhere. So their massed hooves had churned the softened surface up somewhat and it was plastered in mud and other smelly stuff, best avoided. You could hear the cattle, who by now were penned up just off the reserve, all round the place as they were split up and calves and mothers called anxiously for each other, to no avail.
Anyway, almost straight away as I walked through the grazing marsh I saw a hovering Rough-leg Buzzard near the Tower Hide and then swinging round, saw another over by the saltings in front of the Seawall Hide, that's how days on the reserve should be! Behind me on the main marsh, a flock of Golden Plover was building up, inspired no doubt by the fact that after a few rainy spells this week, the surface looked muddier and softer than it actually was and therefore might produce food. By the time I eventually left the reserve there were around 600 Goldies there.

A couple of Kestrels hovered over the rougher areas of grass and a Marsh Harrier made its way along a reed bed and stirred up some Reed Buntings, it was starting to look quite good. I made my way over to the sea wall and sat there for the rest of the visit with another regular bird watcher to Harty and we watched the reserve and the saltings from there. A few more Marsh Harriers drifted in and out of the reserve, all females today for some reason, and then a Short-eared Owl began quartering the marsh in front of us, followed soon after by a second that sat on top of the sea wall further along. The Rough-legged Buzzards seemed to have disappeared but it didn't matter because, despite the light becoming increasingly gloomy and damp, with a hint of drizzle, the saltings and the fast rising tide had plenty to offer. Yesterday was the culmination of the four weekly cycle through the year whereby the tides increase in height before dropping away again, yesterday was a high one at 6.2 metres and should of covered the saltings completely, and it did, with great effect.
Its an amazing sight, it first starts to flood over the saltings out on their far edge, quite quickly fills and overflows the various rill-ways before quickly sweeping across the saltings in a silent flood to reach the base of the sea wall. Coupled with the still and gloomy visibility it had a Dickesian atmosphere about it all, like you get from marshes at certain times of the year and time of day. And with it came the birds that normally sit on the tide further out, large numbers of Brent Geese and Mallard, drifted in, Curlews, Redshanks, Reed Buntings and Meadow Pipits, flooded out of their normal saltings roosts, all flew up and wheeled around and the noise of birds was fantastic.
Gradually, as you can see below, the saltings began to disappear.

Rob, the other birdwatcher and I, sat there and watched it all, we had birds behind us and birds in front of us. There was always a Marsh Harrier or two on the reserve somewhere everytime we looked, a third S.E. Owl appeared and quartered out into the marsh and small numbers of Skylarks and Reed Buntings got up again. In the distance the cows still mournfully called for their calves and it was a day when all the sky seemed to be full of birds at once, it was great.
By now, as you can see, the saltings were pretty much totally covered and as the white marker post that the wildfowlers must shoot behind indicates, there wouldn't be any of those out that afternoon, even chest waders wouldn't cope with that.
Rob and I finally went our seperate ways and he E-Mailed me later to say that as he made his way back along the sea wall to Shellness Hamlet, he saw a further 5 S.E.Owls, either new or including the three we'd already seen, its hard to know. I suspect that they'd been flooded up off of the saltings where they roost and hunt.

As I made my back along the sea wall in the other direction, I came across a strange sight. After I'd taken the photo above, I watched two Herons further away who had alighted on a piece of salting that wasn't fully submerged. They were regularly stabbing at the vegetation and as I got closer it became apparent what was occurring. Several voles that had obviously got caught out by the tide had sought brief respite on the vegetation, only to become a meal table for the Herons, who were eating them.
It was a good visit and the best counts were:- 2 Rough-legged Buzzards, 2 ring-tailed Hen Harriers, 6 Marsh Harriers, 5 possibly 8 Short-eared Owls, 600 Golden Plovers, 2 Kestrels and a Barn Owl.
And this morning as I crossed the reserve again, I had the first Lapland Bunting of the winter. After several barren months the reserve has come alive again - fantastic!


  1. Great report Derek.. you just may have encouraged me to make my way over to the marsh from London tomorrow in the hope of seeing some SE Owls, my fav birds..

    Kevin Hazelgrove

  2. A very evocative piece, made me homesick during a few days in Lancs, but hopefully we'll get out to some marshes before we come home.

  3. Great account Derek has reminded me that a visit is long overdue. SE Owls being enough but the picture painted by you gives an added reason.

  4. Cheers chaps and that's exactly how it was, strange how a damp and murky afternoon can give a marsh more atmosphere than a bright and sunny one sometimes - the birds seen also helped!

  5. Hi Derek,
    Ventured out today into your world..Saw 5 SEO at Shellness from the wall, Ringtailed and Male Hen Harrier.Rough legged Buzzard and Little Owl and of course 3 Marsh Harrier from the access track to the car park.


  6. Brilliant Mike, glad that my description on Friday was maintained and you're one up on me because I haven't seen a male HH yet.

  7. Didn't see the male hen harrier (I never do!) but can add a peregrine hanging around the tower hide area. Those owls are awesome! Definitely worth the pain of doing the entire reserve circuit in wellies with a pulled calf muscle! Really enjoy your posts Derek, thanks..

  8. Cheers Kev,
    Those owls are magical and I get the double whammy by having the Jack Russell with me because the owls often get inquisitive and come really close and hover over the dog, so if you see a S.E. Owl with a Jacko in its claws it'll be mine.

    I know how you feel re. the pain, with arthritis in both my feet its really painful at times walking round, but pain worth enduring.