Saturday, 2 April 2011


Wow. What a day! Today was the first real "fall" of spring migrants on the Dee. We've been having a steady trickle of birds coming through but hardly a torrent.

That changed overnight. The wind went strong from the south and heavy rain showers brought the local birders plenty of treats. Stuff was being reported from all over the Dee. Plenty on Hilbre, loads around Leasowe Lighthouse and a field full of Wheatears at the Langfields.

On a day like this it is impossible to get round all of these places and see everything on offer. Instead you pick your spot and see what comes your way. I picked mine and got lucky.

Nothing especially rare but it was tip-top quality. I got the chance to witness real migration in progress and it was pretty special.

8 Willow Warblers provided me with my migration snapshot, a glimpse at their epic journey from sub-Saharan Africa to our neck of the woods. I was wandering past the old marl pit close to the Thurstaston Centre when a fluttering caught my eye. As this happened I heard the gentle trilling of a Willow Warbler. The two things were not unconnected.

A closer look at the pond reveals several of these Phylloscopus warblers flitting around the trees at the waters edge.

I'm still a little way off so I'm not sure how many there are, the tiny shapes zipping low over the water from tree to tree. They are staying close to the water and deep in cover, it's tricky to count them. Every now and then one hops to a prominent perch and sings for a little while.

Then it is back to the business of feeding. The action is quite frantic, the birds seem hungry. They dart out from cover and somersault, hover and tumble in pursuit of insect prey. They are picking food items from the twigs too, but most of their breakfast is airbourne.

It is as I watch this that I begin to piece together the events that have led to my chance encounter with these cracking little birds.

They have been migrating all night, high above. Birds often migrate at night, it is cooler so they are less likely to overheat. They are less obvious to predators in the darkness and fewer predators will be hunting too. Finally they often use stars as cues in their navigation. So they were up there and now they are down here.

The rain. I figure it's the heavy squall that I got caught in earlier that brought them down to earth. Migrating uses heaps of energy so if you land it makes sense to refuel as soon as poss.
They dart around feeding with ruthless efficiency. As they do I begin to appreciate how well camoflagued thay are. They blend really well with the sallow catkins. They are daubed with powdery pollen that puffs up into the air as the birds brush past them. They are getting closer now. Either they have figured that I am not all that threatening or they are so hungry that they don't care that I'm watching and snapping away with the 40D.

Along with the breaking buds on the branches they are landing on, the Willow Warblers are a sure sign of the progress of spring. They are still buzzing about, looking more like flycatchers than warblers and with a little concentration I count the little blighters. 8 is the number I settle on. It is tricky though, they are criss-crossing the pond from tree to tree. It sounds crazy but it resembles a Tokyo diagonal pedestrian crossing, but with Willow Warblers! I stand and watch them, stopping the picture taking to just soak up the scene. They are coming even closer now, one flies within a couple of feet of me, another lands so close that it fills the viewfinder.

I've taken so many photos that the memory card is full! I decide that this magic experience should come to an end, I don't want to distract the birds from their feeding and the wind has gotten quite cold. I fancy a brew, to review the pictures taken and reflect on another magic Dee moment.

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