Friday 6 January 2023

Birding Aldcliffe Returns!


Regular visitors to Birding Aldcliffe will have doubtless noticed that new posts to the site are somewhat rarer than ivory-billed woodpecker these days. I can only apologise for this; updates were once extremely regular… but that was when I, presumably, had a bit more time on my hands.

When I first started this blog (March 24, 2008) the idea was to highlight the Aldcliffe area as a key birdwatching site in North Lancashire. This was something a few of us already knew of course, and I’d already been birding there for 20 years at that point, but it often frustrated me that there would be days on end, especially during peak periods of potential activity, when no birders were visiting at all. I really wanted to share my passion for the Aldcliffe Marsh / Freeman’s Wood area and hopefully encourage more coverage from local birdwatchers.  

I first visited the area as a young lad in the late 1970s but it wasn’t until I returned to Lancaster after being away at college in the late 80s that I started birdwatching there regularly. At that time, I would venture onto the saltmarshes and wander along the old disused railway line (now the cycle path) with a couple of birding friends, Adrian ‘Ziggy’ Dawson and Greg Potter, both then students at St Martin’s College.

Looking through my old notebooks from that time, it was clear that I was going to my ‘local patch’ as often as I could (interspersed with frequent visits to RSPB Leighton Moss and further afield) and it’s also clear from these tatty old memoirs that there were a lot more birds around than there are today. There were also far fewer people and I would often only see the same handful of local dog walkers and occasional wildfowlers (Morecambe Bay Wildfowl Association own and manage Aldcliffe Marsh) from one visit to the next.

Changes in habitat, infrastructure, grazing regimes and livestock levels have all contrived to change the overall landscape while the notable increase in people, dogs, cycles and such have also impacted on wildlife here in recent decades.

Not all change has been negative - improvements including the creation and management of the Wildfowlers’ Pools along with the much larger Freemans’ Pools (a ‘borrow’ pool that came into being after sea-defence bunds were built to prevent tidal flooding and now managed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust) have been fantastic.

But, we have lost corn bunting (last bred in arable fields in 1990 and swiftly vanished when the fields were turned into a biodiversity vacuum, ie grazing land) and grey partridge is almost certainly extinct in the area now.  Bewick’s swans were once an annual highlight with significant numbers to be expected on the marsh every winter, but sadly no more.   

There have of course also been gains. The expansion in the range of little egrets nationally means this bird is now a common sight all along the River Lune, with great white egrets now following in their footsteps. Little ringed plover are annual summer visitors, as are reed warblers (both relatively recent colonisers). Stock dove and rook were both once scarce on the patch but are now regular year-round.

Despite the seemingly endless stream of dogs, walkers and cyclists that are now a daily feature of the area, there are still birds to be found here. It can still offer great spring birding when scores of migrants pass through in the right conditions. It is still a stronghold for breeding lesser whitethroats, wintering green sandpiper and good numbers of migrating geese with scarcer species such as bean and white-fronted expected most years.

The obvious lack of postings over the last couple of years isn’t necessarily an indication of fewer visits; I still get out there regularly and there are certainly more birdwatchers visiting the site today than when I first started birding there. While I was away in Canada for a few years (where I also had a blog: Brit Birder in BC) Dan Heywood, Steve Wallis et al, kindly kept this blog alive with frequent updates and we certainly get far more records from the Aldcliffe area these days thanks to the increase in coverage.

Moving forward I will endeavour to post at least once a month, covering recent highlights. Hopefully this will inspire more binocular-wielding folk to explore this fabulous area and who knows, you might be the one to discover the next new patch bird!

Coming soon... 2022 Highlights From The Patch.

Monday 11 April 2022

Spring Things...

I've managed a few trips down to Aldcliffe for a spot of birding in recent days; spring time, despite the rather crummy wind direction of late, always lures me out in search of birds passing through. Despite the unhelpful conditions, it's been mostly dry (bar the odd hail shower) and some determined migrants have made it through. 

Personal highlights this week have included a fine drake garganey on Freeman's Pools on Friday, a wheatear by The Flood on Tuesday and both swallow and willow warblers today (Monday 11). 

Dan H had his first tree pipit of the season earlier in the week and an osprey flew over Fairfield just after noon today. 

Up to 3 little ringed plovers and a green sandpiper have been regular on both the Wildfowlers' Pools and the Flood. We could do with a bit of rain to keep the Flood a little wet and muddy to attract waders and wagtails in the next couple of weeks...   

As ever, the Easter holidays has seen an increase in the number of people with off-lead dogs wandering around all over the saltmarsh, having first walked past all the signs explicitly asking them not to. It's really no wonder that the number of birds seen in these areas of marsh have diminished significantly in recent years. Constant disturbance simply prevents birds from roosting, feeding and nesting.     

(Pic of drake garganey not taken at Aldcliffe but recently at Cockersands)       

Monday 4 April 2022

2022 Update!

Flippin' heck. It's been a while. 

As ever, I have had lots of good intentions to update this page from time to time but alas I simply haven't got round to it. So, here we are almost two years since the last post. Quite a lot has happened in that time to be fair, both in the wider world and indeed at Aldcliffe. And, while many of the bigger issues have been somewhat consuming, we shall try not to focus on those here and instead direct our interests to the matter of birding in and around the Aldcliffe area. 

Since our last blog post, there have been a one or two notable developments in the area. 
The Lancaster & District Birdwatching Society (LDBWS) have installed an excellent feeding station by Pony Wood at Fairfield. As a result we have seen a wide variety of species using this resource including good numbers of reed buntings and bramblings - much to the delight of local birdwatchers and the local community in general. 

Also, some extensive drainage work has been done in an effort to reduce flooding in the fields bordering Aldcliffe Hall Lane and the cycle track. This has the potential to reduce this area's appeal to birds (particularly passage waders and wagtails etc) but the actual outcomes have yet to be seen. 

Meanwhile the overall condition of the Aldcliffe landscape continues to be generally poor for wildlife and the stretch from Freeman's Wood to Stodday is increasingly uninviting to many birds. A notable increase in the number of people using the cycle-track and the spill-over disturbance onto the marsh and into the fields, especially by significant numbers of people with off-lead dogs, appears to be having quite an impact. Despite lots of signage having placed at the entry points, many dog-owners appear to think that it applies to other pet owners only.

The Wildfowlers' Pools still attract plenty of birds seasonally as do Freeman's Pools, so it's not all bad.

When I started this blog, the primary purpose was to try to highlight the area's potential and hopefully encourage more birdwatchers to visit - after all I had been birding here since the 1980s and knew how good it could be! Thankfully, more people do birdwatch here now than ever and thanks to this increase and regular ongoing coverage by a small but dedicated band of local patchers we have a far better understanding of the area and its value to breeding and wintering birds as well as off-passage migrants. 

So, given that it's spring (not that it feels like it out there today) let's kick off with some seasonal news...

Spring migrants so far include: 

Chiffchaff (plenty singing around the entire area for some time now) 

Blackcap: (small numbers singing in and around Freeman's Wood)

Little ringed plover (at least 3 birds on The Flood and Wildfowlers' Pools)

Ruff (1 at Wildfowlers' Pools 27-28 March)

(No one had any sand martins here yet???)

Other odds and sods in recent weeks include red kite, tundra bean goose, white-fronted goose, barn owl, Mediterranean gull, ringed plover, black-tailed godwit, etc. 

It is my intention to maintain some sort of updates here moving forward, but I've had those sort of intentions before. Let's see how we get on...          


Tuesday 12 May 2020

More Migrants on the Move

With no further sightings of Saturday's RB shrike and the notable change in weather (from positively Mediterranean to classic Northern European) one would expect things to have quietened down on the patch in recent days.
However, a couple of very welcome late migrants were added to the Aldcliffe yearlist with an active female redstart by Freeman's Pools yesterday (Monday) and a couple of whinchats there this morning.

Female whinchat (from archive, J Carter)
I had gone out this morning with the express intention of finding a whinchat, so I was pleased when I finally clapped eyes on them in an area where they often turn up.
That's the thing about local patch birding; over the years one builds up a picture of a site and often the same areas attract the same species when passing through. By checking certain favoured spots at certain times of year, one increases the chances of finding specific birds.
When I first noticed this morning's whinchats they were feeding in much the same area but one of the birds seemed to take offence to the other and chased it off.

Other birds of note included a pair of great crested grebes on the pools - prospective breeders?


Monday 11 May 2020

Bike / Hike Shrike

One of the concerns of local patch birding is how to treat news if one finds a rare bird? Can we manage parking and access, how far might people wish to travel in order to see a scarce visitor and how many birdwatchers might descend on this relatively quiet spot?

Male red-backed shrike (J Carter)
Of course, in lockdown these questions are to some extent moot - we would not wish to encourage anyone to get in a car in order to twitch a regional or national rarity. So while the small band of Aldcliffe patch birders have continued to search for noteworthy birds we have been, uncharacteristically, hoping not to discover anything that might draw the crowds.

However, when news broke on Saturday afternoon that a male red-backed shrike had been discovered along the Dawson Bank hedgerow, a small gaggle of West Lancaster birders suddenly found the need to take their daily exercise (as per government guidelines, after all).

Personally, I've spent time on the patch pretty much every day since I was furloughed but I'd given Saturday a miss due to the glorious weather and the likely hordes of walkers, cyclists etc, as a result of the lack of coherent messaging about staying at home... I believe the phrase may be Sod's law!

Local birders observing social distancing (P Crooks)
News reached the grapevine just before 4pm (huge thanks to finder Joe Murphy) and despite my immediate reservations about dropping everything (decorating, as it happens) I soon found myself leaping on my bike and heading towards the patch, which is literally just minutes from home. Despite the bird having disappeared from view, and news of its last whereabouts being vague, less than half an hour after deciding to leave the house I was stood watching this most dazzling of continental overshoots. Within an hour of news breaking, most of the local patchers were on site enjoying good views of the bird.

Red-backed shrike is a long-overdue first the Aldcliffe area and it represents the third species of shrike to be seen here to my knowledge.
A great grey shrike spent some time in Freeman's Wood back in December 1991 and a stunning woodchat shrike was in almost the same area as the red-backed (and remarkably close in date) on 8/9 May 2014. So, which next: Lesser grey? Steppe grey? Brown? Masked? Watch this space!  

RB shrike brings the known Aldcliffe list to 204 and my personal patch list to 201.