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SNOW LEOPARD MEMORIES

A Snow Leopard makes its way down a cliff face in Hemis National Park, Ladakh

LOOKING BACK AT 2017 it was easy to pick my favourite wildlife encounter of the year this time. There were some very memorable moments starting with the Yellow-billed Loon in Lincolnshire, a bird I had wanted to see at point blank range for a long time, having missed the opportunity of seeing the previous Lincolnshire individual, which was only a few miles from this one then the Hayle Estuary long-stayer and a most painful dip of the Brixham harbour bird a couple of years ago. Colorado in April produced a few stunning highlights, including hiking up Guanella Pass in deep snow with Craig Robson for White-tailed Ptarmigan as well as early morning sunshine on Sage Grouse lekking only a few metres away from us plus some terrific all American diner breakfasts. Texas immediately afterwards was full of exciting action too, including the two near endemic breeding specials in the flowery Hill Country, Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, a proper spring fall out at High island as well as a stunning all day hike in the western mountains for the perky little Colima Warbler. Back in Bowland the sky dancing Pallid Harrier in Dunsop Valley in May will probably be the best bird I ever see locally, it was certainly my best Pallid Harrier of the very many I have seen so far! Thanks to Wayne Law for persuading me to have one more try at a close encounter. It even made up for missing dotterel in East Lancs for the first time in 12 years. Back-to-back tours in Iceland in June (I went round twice!) included close views of my WP lifer White-winged Scoter, a Snowy Owl found by chance in the midnight sun and a lovely overnight stay on the phalarope island of Flatey. The time spent photographing the gorgeous drake Harlequins shooting the rapids of the Laxá River was another outstanding experience.

Svalbard was rather tough this year in some really horrible weather but cruising the edge of the pack ice in SV Noorderlicht on one of the fine days with Ivory Gulls flying past was another great experience. There were also some great walrus landings, a pod of four Blue Whales around the boat and a very nice Polar Bear encounter with an animal raiding bird nests in the Måkeøyane, not to mention the best company! It was ironic that not long after returning home a juvenile Purple Sandpiper should turn up at Rishton, the first for the ELOC area. A very nice encounter with the Leighton Moss Purple Heron (one of four heron species seen from the Grisedale Hide that day!) with Mark Varley was another highlight. My travels ended with a Wild Images photo tour of Madagascar, where close encounters with Long-tailed Ground Roller in the Spiny Forest of the southwest, the Fosas of Kirindy, Indris in the eastern rainforest and the beautiful Golden-crowned Sifakas of Daraina were my favourite moments.

However, no matter how good all of these encounters were, there is one that stands above them in terms of its 'once-in-a-lifetime' nature, the Snow Leopard that we watched at its kill in Hemis National Park in Ladakh in March, in the most idyllic mountain ice and snow setting and with some of the best people I know... for three days! There were some other excellent moments in Ladakh like surprise finds of both Black-throated Accentor (10!) and White-winged Grosbeak as well as getting to the frozen salt lake of Tso Kar up on the Tibetan Plateau where Ground Tit and Blanford's Snowfinch were both much appreciated along with the many Kiangs and Argalis not to mention the staggering road journey along the Indus Gorge. Finally, although not nearly as spectacular, finding a drake eider at Stocks Reservoir (another ELOC mega) with my little boy Alexander (he had suggested we go to Stocks!) was also pretty special. I should also mention that most of these highlights were mostly thanks to the help of someone else, particularly local guides like Jigmet Dadul and his team in Ladakh, Arjen Drost, Menthe Groefsema and the rest of the crew of SV Noorderlicht, Armel Andriniaina in Madagascar, my colleagues at Birdquest and Wild Images, who do a great job of supporting me and keeping things going while I am swanning around on tour, and finally my tour participants who often make these encounters a lot more fun. I'm looking forward to another busy year in 2018!

Rows Left-right from top: Snow Leopard, Ibisbill, Sage Grouse, Yellow-billled Loon, Black-throated Accentor, Lucifer Sheartail, Colima Warbler, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Walrus, Harlequin, Pallid Harrier, White-winged Scoter, Polar Bear, Blue Whale, Golden-crowned Sifaka, Fosa, Long-tailed Ground Roller and Verreaux's Sifaka.

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HARD WEATHER MOVEMENTS

  Pendle regular Martin Naylor searching for Snow Buntings on the Downham slope

Pendle regular Martin Naylor searching for Snow Buntings on the Downham slope

The last couple of Sunday morning walks on the riverbank have been quite productive, last Sunday saw a record 59 species, including Little Egret. It is still present today ranging between Hothersall Hall and Lower Alston Farm and today was another respectable 50 species. Single Common Snipes have featured on both weekends too, both flying over, presumably displaced by the hard weather. Other birds on the move at the moment were Herring Gull (163 on 3 December - usually around 10-30) and Northern Lapwing (168 on 10 December). The Little Grebes continue on the river at Red Bank and up to three oystercatchers appear to be wintering on the same stretch. Another weather related record was a flock of 18 Meadow Pipits by the sewage works . In contrast, numbers of birds presumably pushed out by the snow have fallen like Goldfinch (41 week 46 to only 6 on 10 December) and Chaffinch (45 week 47 to only 14 on 10 December). I am planning to keep up the counts as long as I can this winter following the same route more or less and for the same length of time and it will be interesting to see the results.

After over 30,000 steps on Pendle Hill and only two Snow Buntings flying over I'd had enough. Well at least it was good exercise! A Meadow Pipit flying low over the summit on Monday morning was also part of the hard weather movements. They are rarer than Snow Bunting up there at this time of year.

  Little Egret at Ribchester. Not much you can do at 8000 ISO!

Little Egret at Ribchester. Not much you can do at 8000 ISO!

  Frozen Snow Bunting food in the dotterel area on Pendle Hill

Frozen Snow Bunting food in the dotterel area on Pendle Hill

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BACK ON THE RIVERBANK

Ribchester.jpg

A walk along the riverbank at Ribchester today produced a Little Egret, only my fourth sighting since I moved here six years ago but I suspect they are quite regular. It was feeding on the bank between Lower Barn Farm and Red Bank. The reasonable species total of 43 today included a few other interesting birds like bullfinch and jay, which were also my first sightings this year. The young Peregrine is still around, being mobbed by the local Carrion Crows today, effortlessly avoiding them and then turning the tables and buzzing them in return. It had a full crop and I am guessing that it is hunting the starlings, which are here in large numbers this winter. A big flock of c2500 gulls, mostly Black-headed, on the flooded fields opposite Red Bank included a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. There are still a few Fieldfares and Redwings around there appear to be more Chaffinches and Blackbirds than usual. Regulars also included three Kingfishers, five Common Buzzards, a sparrowhawk and three Grey Wagtails. The pinioned escaped Trumpeter Swan was still on the river today, it must be more than 12 years old now as it has been in Rib as long as I have been in East Lancs.

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PENDLE HILL SNOW BUNTINGS

Snow Buntings are back on Pendle Hill, seen here in the shadows of the Downham Slope.

Martin Garner wrote in his Birding Frontiers Challenge Series Winter 'It's like having the Arctic Wilderness arrive on your doorstep'. That's exactly how I feel about Snow Buntings. I've been lucky to see them on their breeding grounds in both Iceland and Svalbard this summer and here they are back again in East Lancashire for the winter. A couple of Snow Buntings had been seen on Pendle on Friday and I couldn't resist a (now only occasional) hike up the hill today. After some searching of their favourite haunts on the hill I heard one call over the big end, this was followed by a second a few moments later. Not long afterwards I was delighted to stumble on a small flock of eight birds feeding grass seeds along one of the paths above the Downham slope. They were typically very shy and difficult to approach, feeding on the icy cold north slope, which does not see the sun by this time in winter. Northerly winds recently have probably aided their return to Pendle after an almost blank winter last year with only a couple of birds and I found quite a few droppings here and there suggesting they have been around for a while already. As explained in Martin Garner's book, the Pendle birds identified to race so far have been nivalis and are therefore continental European breeding birds but, wherever they are from, Snow Buntings are very uncommon away from the coast making the small numbers we get on Pendle very special. Also on Pendle today were golden plover (8), plenty of Red Grouse calling now and a woodcock in the car headlights standing in the middle of the road below the big end before first light.

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