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FIRST SIGNS OF SPRING

THE CALLS OF CURLEWS ECHOED ACROSS THE VALLEY at Ribchester today, the first birds returning from their wintering grounds nearer to the coast. There have been oystercatchers around pretty much all winter as well as a few lapwings but I always associate the return of the curlews with the first signs of spring along with Snowdrops in the church yard and the earliest bird song. Today's walk along the river to Red Bank and back produced two new birds for me here. The first was Dipper, a long awaited prospect, one flew from the river up the stream past the Roman Bath House first thing. I know they have been see further up this stream but this is the first time I have seen one by the river. The second was a Greylag Goose, flying west down the valley (before today I had seen more Greenland White-fronts here than Greylags!). A Green Woodpecker calling loudly at Red Bank was probably a visitor from the woods at Hothersall Hall, where they are more regular.  Oystercatchers have increased to 32 on the meadow by the river opposite Red Bank and other signs of spring were birds, which are now singing including Chaffinch, Dunnock and Wren. A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers was in the wood at Red Bank, where the male was drumming. The morning's total was a very respectable 56 species, only 3 off my highest total and although some trickier birds like goldeneye, sparrowhawl and skylark put in an appearance other regulars like kestrel, Little Egret and kingfisher were missing.

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MERLIN BRIGHTENS DULL DAY!

A FEMALE MERLIN DASHED ACROSS THE RIVER heading north over Boat House, with the trajectory of a missile, in hunting mode, its fast wingbeats powering it on. Only the second I've seen in Ribchester (the first was over the house) but the first I've seen on my regular birding walk, which takes me along the riverbank from St Wilfrid's School to Red Bank and back via Boat House and Lower Barn. Today's total was 57 species, 7 over par for this winter's walks and although it did not include some regulars it also included another two new ones for this winter - Canada Goose (a small flock of 33 that flew over the village and was later feeding on the fields opposite Red Bank, which also included a Pink-footed Goose) and Tawny Owl (calling from Hothersall Hall in mid morning).

A Peregrine was screaming at a buzzard by the power lines above Red Bank, I think the large number of starlings has attracted it and so far Peregrine has featured on over half of my walks. Eight buzzards were logged today, as well as a pair of Ravens, two kestrels and the (?) Little Egret. A Teal flying upstream at Red Bank was only my second record this winter, only one Little Grebe was seen at Red Bank but the Kingfisher was back by the school in Ribchester. A major feature of today's observations was a southward passage of Woodpigeons, totalling 134 and easily my highest total of the winter, maybe ahead of the cold front on the way later today. Starling numbers had increased to c.740 and Fieldfares to 73 and Black-headed Gulls were also up at c.960.

Goosander was absent again and the general lack of sightings might be owing to persecution. I've only seen it on 4 out of 7 counts this winter. This figure used to be 100%. The bailiff tells me that RADAC has a license to shoot them and cormorants. It is a shame that the aims of one group of conservationists is at odds with that of another. I am sure they do some good work in maintaining habitat along the banks of the river but I wish they would not shoot birds.

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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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