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EAST LANCS NEW YEAR

THE NEW YEAR STARTED OFF VERY WET INDEED. I got soaked three times on New Year's Day taking part in ELOC NYD listing. Although I saw some interesting birds like Snow Bunting on Pendle Hill, Pintail and Pink-footed Goose at Stocks, Little Egret, Little Grebe and oystercatcher at Ribchester and finally a brief adult Glaucous Gull in horrible conditions at Fishmoor Reservoir I was still 20 behind the Breakses total as usual. The time taken on Pendle kills the chances of enough small birds and I was rained off twice when I planned to look for them. I caught up five on my first day back at work on 2 January including a male Brambling, which has been on the office feeders this week.

In contrast the first Sunday of the new year was freezing cold and icy. An all day effort produced a similar total between Pendle, Ribchester and Fishmoor. Highlights included two Snow Buntings over Pendle Summit in a freezing cold wind before dawn. I gave up taking landscapes when my camera lens frosted over. This never even happened in Ladakh!!! The wind chill was very severe indeed this morning. The walk around my BTO birdtrack location at Ribchester produced 52 species including Peregrine, 7 buzzards, 4 ravens, 10 oystercatchers, 3 Little Grebes, 4 Goosanders and record totals of Stock Dove (6!) and Long-tailed Tit (19). A skylark flew over the village calling, a scarce bird around Ribchester in midwinter. Finally the late afternoon Fishmoor gull roost in Blackburn produced a terrific 2cy Glaucous Gull by Mark and Jack and what was almost certainly an adult Caspian Gull in rapidly fading light by Pete.

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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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