With the Golf Course still closed, I had my wingman for the second weekend running. The fact my Dad was joining me was made even better when he said he would drive, his car is slightly better than mine when it comes to handling snow and ice covered roads. My car seems to have a mind of its own in these conditions. Having dipped on the Smew the previous weekend we decided to have another go further down river based on a sighting posted on Birdguides the day before. We parked up by The Navigation pub to be immediately greeted by a Fieldfare feeding on berries which posed for a few shots before we headed towards the river.
As we got to the steps leading up to the footbridge we had a slight vantage point over the river to the far bank. This was one of those “right place at the right time” moments, as soon as we could see the other side, a Water Rail left its cover, scurried across a small clearing before vanishing again into a thicket. A chance sighting of such an elusive bird, to be fair, every sighting I have ever had of Water Rail has been a glimpse at best. Still, a great start to the day, and year. The footbridge had another surprise, an incredibly brave or totally lost Pygmy Shrew, who was completely oblivious to us peering down on it while it found its bearings.
Due to the main bodies of water being frozen the free flowing river seemed to be teeming with birds. Within a few minutes of being on the riverside path we had Tufted Duck, Pochard, Wigeon, Teal, Goldeneye, Gooseander, Mallard, Cormorant, Redshank, Kingfisher, Grey Heron, Little and Great Crested Grebes, the list goes on. That’s not even mentioning all the regulars in the bushes and trees. The path winds around a sewerage farm where the filter beds were alive with Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits, with a single Grey Wagtail adding some colour. The large numbers of birds hadn’t gone unnoticed with the local Sparrowhawks, which were practically queuing up. This area must be like McDonalds for Sparrowhawks.
It wasn’t long after when we eventually got sight of the main event, a stunning drake Smew. These are migratory ducks that summer in northern Scandinavia and Siberia, with only 200 or so (if not less) reaching the UK every winter. Unfortunately I could only muster a blurred flight shot as it took to the air when spooked by couple of youths walking along the path. They are very shy ducks indeed, opting to fly further up river rather than diving like Goldeneye, or merely swimming away like Gooseander. Should it stay in the area though, there maybe other opportunities to get a better photo? A quick walk to see if we could relocate the Smew produced another sawbill in the form of a female Red Breasted Merganser, which can only be the same bird we saw the previous weekend a mile or so up river near the Calder Wetlands and Pugneys area. This put the icing on the cake with a cracking trio of Gooseander, Red Breasted Merganser and Smew, whom have acquired their family name of “sawbills” from small tooth like serrations on their bill which provide better underwater grip whilst hunting fish.
It was a poor day for photographs due to bad light and shy subjects but a superb few hours of birding with Water Rail, Smew and Red Breasted Merganser taking the honours, closely followed by a perched roadside Buzzard on the way home at Bretton.