Tag Archives: birdwatching

What else Seaforth is good for

Breeding adult Little Gull Larus minutus in flight

Bye-bye, Little one: how great are Seaforth’s chances of survival? (Original by Photo Nature – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/#)

Seaforth Nature Reserve isn’t owned by the Wildlife Trust who manage it. In fact, it’s not owned by anyone with a wildlife interest or mandate at all: it’s owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. This can cause problems.

The building of a large warehouse on the reserve – if I remember rightly, on the very scrub which hosted at least one vagrant North American sparrow, plus various other passerines of note, in the few years prior – struck many as a travesty, but at least there was still most of the reserve left. Besides, it even added to the vast incongruity of Seaforth’s existence, which shouts out at you from virtually every side. Restricted access due to counter-terrorism measures? Maybe that’s not all bad, particularly for its floral and faunal inhabitants.

In 2011, the MDHC’s parent company Peel Ports announced plans for a £500m deep-water dock development. If sanctioned, it was to double the Port of Liverpool’s container handling capacity – and obliterate the nature reserve. While the plans have since morphed a bit, work has been underway for a while. Never mind the illustrious history of great finds (more species-rich per unit area than the Scillies, Steve Youngonce pointed out – impressive, even if you could claim the same for your garden birdbath); never mind populations and European designations; never mind the country’s top site for Little Gulls. You could make it up, but why bother? They do it for you for real.

Introducing the following piece in such gloomy circumstances may make it seem like an in memoriam. It was by no means intended as such: I started it to give background to a nostalgic, pre-warehouse perspective of selected teen incidents taped together after I exhilarated myself writing the Roseate Tern articles. However, the story of Seaforth’s threatened existence highlights all too well the threat faced by far too much of our wildlife, both globally and in little old Britain. All I can do on reading the latest news from home is to grit my teeth and scream “let’s celebrate and enjoy the reserve while it’s still there!” To me, what’s below illustrates some of the best things that still exist (albeit in ever-reducing form) at Seaforth. Well, they did last time I checked…

  1. Sunny evenings. While this may be the preserve of anywhere not permanently covered by clouds or man-made structures, I think Seaforth does it rather well. A distant Avocet grazing low-tide marsh in May (back in the days before Avocets started turning up in everyone’s duck-ponds). The golden glow of the disappearing sun outlining a plucky Little Ringed Plover on a miniature wetland of a pool, an identikit wader known as a Ruff, a small coot that you’ve turned into this morning’s Temminck’s Stint. Pink mackerel sky. The massive orb, in fiery red you rarely see elsewhere, setting over a disused watchpoint.
  1. The translucent wing-tips of Arctic Terns way, way overhead.

    Today's post is all about seabirds. Again. (Arctic Tern - Andreas Trepte - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/#)

    Today’s post is all about seabirds. Again. (Andreas Trepte – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/#)

  1. Mad dashes.

a.) They tell you a Blackpoll Warbler has come over from America. Pedal frantically to reserve. Warbler feeds, calls and seemingly thinks about singing, looking spiffy in black, white and buff.

b.) Up the coast at Marshside, you hear of a Marsh Sandpiper at Seaforth. Take next train to Waterloo, pedal frantically. Said sandpiper seen from afar.

  1. Mistle thrushes on the rich, wet turf.
  1. You forming part of a group of three standing around a bush. A bush, in fact, with a bird in it. A bush with a bird suspected to be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler in it. When bird flies, repeat process at next bush. It is eventually decided it’s just a bush with a Reed Warbler in it. Bushes left in peace.
  1. Massive starling flocks. Never Spotless, but filmed at least once by Bill Oddie’s camera crew – a right occasion.

    Murmuration of starlings over Brighton

                                   A bit like this                                   (Andreas-photography, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/#)

  1. Being spooked by dive-bombing terns. If ever you want a red rag for terns, bike helmets seem to do a good job.

    Arctic tern dive-bombs photographer

    No pain, no gain for photographer Michał Sacharewicz

  1. Dragonflies you’ve never heard of – but that come in handy when you start watching dragonflies.
  1. The bricks and bushes turning up a Firecrest and a Black Redstart. Did I tell you the Port built a warehouse over it?

Yes, one can mitigate – but one can never truly replace.


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Here follows a piece I wrote for BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Travel Writer of the Year 2013. Having drafted the piece for 2012’s competition before running out of time, I polished it for 2013 entry only to discover rather last-minute that the comp’s word limit had been cut by a hundred words. Hasty readjustments ensued!

A few weeks post-submission I received an email telling me my piece had made the shortlist. It was a little while before the magazine article came out – but when it did, I found my piece hadn’t quite made it into the select handful published in full.However, I found the Beeb judges had helpfully renamed my piece, from the somewhat clichéd ‘Home’ to the relatively apt and more distinguishing ‘Bananas.’ I hope, then, you enjoy ‘Bananas,’ whether or not you’ve read it before.

Red-backed shrike male perching

The shot I never got. Well done Brendan A Ryan – what a bird!


I become aware of the squashed banana progressively.  My hand had entered the rucksack with silent urgency, trying to retrieve a camera quickly yet stealthily.  It now leaves slowly, clutching a sticky, slush-coated, camera-shaped something.  Throughout the operation, my eyes haven’t left the shrike I want to photograph.  Now, they wander down.  My guess is correct: a banana-covered camera.

Wiping off sweet, squelchy gloop, I clean its housing with some kitchen paper.  The shrike has flown – not all that far, but too far for a decent picture.  Laughing, I gradually proceed to investigate what further mess my lunch has made.  With those revulsive, gingerly movements employed by custard pie victims, pant-wetters and fruit-squashers the world over, I retrieve and tactfully relocate a split black banana skin and what remains of its contents.

I’ve been to Nationalpark Unteres Odertal before.  Back then, the highlight was a moment of blue sky and sunshine, of bold White Storks and graceful Black Terns – a moment I shared with my uncle.  This time, I am alone.

I came from Berlin, a land of trains: smart red double-deckers with leather upholstery pass immaculate S-Bahn carriages debuted at the 1936 Olympics.  Leaving Berlin eastwards, mile upon mile of colourful graffiti sings hymns of liberation joy.  Once this urban exuberance passes, bright skies and vigorous cornfields dazzle the eye instead.  Alighting at Schwedt, just outside the Nationalpark and nearing the Polish border, I find the world appears to have been drained of colour.

Schwedt’s skies are neither leaden nor slate-coloured: they are merely grey.  The majority of Schwedt, too, is grey – a sad town, indwelt by a haunting post-Communist deadness.  One in three of the grown female population dyes their hair red – presumably to try and make life less unbearably drab, but simply making things feel all the more despairing.

Unprepared for streets that form cross-roads with themselves, I spend a long time looking for my guest-house. This makes me grumpy, but nothing worse – at the age of 14, being lost abroad is already a familiar feeling.  When I find the guest-house, the landlady listens in on my phone-calls and provides no evening meal.  I’m not impressed.

Next morning, I follow a streamside walk into the Park, catching pasta-dish aromas from distinctly Continental restaurants, the sort that will form a backdrop for teenage heartbreak some months later.  A deer shoots past, then the birds begin – little River Warbler, scolding Savi’s Warbler, murderous Red-backed Shrike oh-so-handsome in its seductive livery of silver and ruddy and rose.

Back in the aftermath of the banana incident, I spend an hour high on birds.  Most are unfamiliar, and while my inner birder becomes frustrated by my failure to identify many of them, this feast of avian coquetry is exhilarating enough.  Touches of the commonplace – a distant rooster, two budgies overhead (what are they doing here…?) – make the unusual all the more surreal, like being paired with Johnny Depp at drama class, perhaps, or agonising over cheese offers at the local Sainsbury’s with Heston Blumenthal.  I see one or two people, possibly three – I don’t recall.  Rounding a bend beyond a tree with a kestrel in, I stumble through a gap in the reeds and over some boggy ground.

It’s one of those movie-screen moments.  As my eyes adjust, the cranes – two of them – notice me and take off.  The mighty birds fly silently through the damp air, shrouded in hanging mist and intense quietness.  Powerful and mysterious, their curious forms begin to shrink with distance, but still look colossal.  My gaze follows their slow wingbeats, controlled and purposeful, as they near the lofty poplars flanking our broad glade.

No reaching for a camera: my thumping heart is the only muscle moving.  No ill-stationed fruit mars this enchanted hour.  A privileged interloper, I stand in awe as the priests of tranquility noiselessly flee their gatecrashed cathedral.  I might as well be by the lotus-pools of the montane Orient for the serene, artful magic of it all.

All too soon, I lose sight of the cranes as they leave the glade.  Intoxicated by our encounter, I press on along the muddy track.  It, though, ends in a small lake, so I head back the way I came.  In the process, I lose a pencil somewhere between a hunting female Marsh Harrier and an alarmed Redshank.  The latter sounds acutely forlorn – and with good reason.  Marsh Harriers lunch on nestlings, not bananas.

Being lost in a wet wilderness is bracing – refreshing – soul-calming.  Being lost in suburban Schwedt is not.  Why the difference?  Out here in the marshes – here is life, lived more fully.  This is where the wild things roam.  Here I commune with God and with fish-eagles, care-free and unburdened save for a banana-stained rucksack.  This, in a sense, is home.


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Gale Force Tern – part II

On this particular occasion, the weather was cheerfully fresh but the skies were slating over. Two or three people had come and gone since I had arrived (within twenty minutes of the end of school, as usual), but at 4.30 they were now decidedly elsewhere. I remained – largely because I was happy, but, with the wind intensifying, also because of a Roseate Tern. The graceful seabird had been sighted earlier in the day, and as I’d never seen one before I decided to hang on in the hope that this one would be kind and turn up again for me.

The wind got stronger, then stronger still, so that it began to feel as though Hide A was doing its own bit of hanging on. The hide overlooks a large freshwater pool with tern rafts and mini inlets; a bank of brush, trees and lumps of bright green grass on the far side (home to a fox family) seemed distant. The waves whipped deliciously. The salt from the saline lagoon and Irish Sea in the west stung my lips. The heavens opened. Nothing had turned up by five, but maybe I would wait till the rain eased off to save myself a soaking.

The heavens decided to do “opened” with style. The houses nearest the Freeport, cheerily colourful and tantalisingly visible as they were, remained far away. There was thunder, quite possibly lightning – I can’t remember. The world was a storm.

Last week I’d seen a Little Tern from the Wirral over the hide in the bluest July skies, the sun on my skin. While the contrast with today was great, I cherished both the past experience and the present. Ensconced in the hide, I felt secure yet exhilarated.

The terns on the scrape steeled their feathers, battened down the hatches of their minds and set their faces like flint. Some movement occurred; immature Common Gulls came and went moodily. I noticed the appearance of a candidate for the role of Roseate Tern. The bill was dark – but sometimes Arctic and even Common looked that dark. It did look a little longer, though, and the bird perhaps even as elegant as a grumpy tern in a gale can look. The tail streamers seemed to extend further than a Common’s, but not by much, or even by further than wishful thinking might allow. Was it paler than those terns over there at a different angle to me? The legs stayed teasingly out of view from any position I cared to take, though perhaps they should have been visible if they were Roseate-length. Was it? Wasn’t it?

The tern briefly leapt into the arms of the wind before re-settling, leaving me none the wiser. The storm kept raging. After 45 minutes or so I started home.

The rain – the rain… it was absolutely torrential. The port road contains some quirky but not excessively large dips: in one of these, water stood easily over 2 feet deep. Even away from the middle, my pedals sheared along the surface as I ploughed through the mini-lake like a wildebeest up to its chest in Serengeti river, or maybe a strongman in a truck-pulling contest. I was drenched long before I reached home.

Having dried off, I settled down to a late meal and heard little old Crosby mentioned on the national weather – due to an extreme rainfall event, apparently. I could certainly vouch for that. I spent a few minutes feeling heroic, which only served to augment a generally very positive mood. The tern went onto my life list. It was downgraded to a question mark a few years later, but I’ve still never seen a genuine Roseate in a better light.

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Gale Force Tern – part I

Seaforth Nature Reserve. Let me paint you a picture (and erase that pun from your minds. A tern is a kind of seabird, if anyone’s not quite sure.).

Seaforth Nature Reserve occupies a most incongruous setting. It lies on the north side of the Royal Liverpool Freeport – within the Freeport – against a backdrop of HGVs, tall thick wire fences and constantly-bleeping cranes. The Port is often grey, and always dusty.

As a teenage bird enthusiast, I would head in on a bicycle, past the security checkpoint that once knocked me back for lack of a hi-vis jacket, and on a good quarter mile. One passes the police station and goes past rabbits grazing business-park lawns, then passes bits of dead lorry, massive kerbstones and exquisitely unfriendly concrete-and-gravel car parks. After a bend one reaches a long, straight road toward distant wind turbines, but to reach the reserve one aborts into a small car park on the right. To the right again, a plasterboard office, blinds usually drawn, quarters the mysterious reserve staff; a feeding station nestles in the shelter of a damp stand of carr on the left. The boundary ditch disappears westwards along the road, providing a place for rare orchids to flower, while its bank affords a parking space for occasional diggers and steam-rollers. (Neither the steam-rollers nor the orchids seem to mind this illogical arrangement.) I once saw tree sparrows at the feeding station – miles from the nearest farmland – bringing a miniature sample of healthily robust character to a deep silence fringed by a distant mechanical hum.

To get to the main hide, a hundred or so yards of uneven brick path twisted across rich, wet turf strewn with rubble and ambient thorny scrub. (On a bike, the going was fun enough for me to recommend it to some BMXers once, but on reflection they would have faced near-certain injury from sharp bricks had they ever tried to get very airbound.) ‘Hide A’ was a great thick creosoted timber box with a heavy door. Inside were stout trestled workbenches for seating, with viewing slits beneath warped window-flaps of board. The hide also had a big sightings whiteboard, a ring-bound logbook, some plug-sockets, a rusty donations box, a few notices sharing the walls with drawing-pin graffiti, and a clientele – but nothing else.

There were other hides, shells of timber or metal, the realm of cobwebs innumerable and burnt-out oil drums. These, though, were seldom visited. For me, Hide A was magical: the smell of pitch, the hurt of home in a Merseyside breast.


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Every bird tells a story

LET ME ASK YOU SOMETHING: why do some of us watch birds? Beautiful, breathtaking, majestic – birds are poetry-makers, bringers of the superlative, coaxing adjectives from our minds like alchemists at the cauldron. Why does one of my favourite bird experiences involve a small, insignificantly brownish bird that didn’t do much different to the more colourful garden birds around it? Because it tells a story.

My name is Danny Flenley, and I want to use this blog to tell some of the stories I’ve been part of – tales of eccentricity and electricity, of grit and gritting machines, of life and beauty and peace and awe and parsimony; tales of extreme places and extreme wildlife (birds and beyond). I sketched this intro to ‘the-blog-I-was-going-to-start’ some time ago, and now plan to mix more of a healthy dose of comment, opinion and something resembling education into my posts. However, if I manage to do the actual stories any kind of justice they ought to be stories worth hearing – don’t you think?

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