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For the latest in his Nature In Lockdown series Stephen Dunstan looks at visible bird migration along our coastline.

It’s often said that shared interests help keep the spark in relationships.  Jane and I have never really managed mutual pastimes, but of late we’ve got half way there.  Before work, and before the lockdown crowds increase, we’ve been going to Rossall Beach.  Jane combs the pebbled beach looking for sea glass, with much success, and I traverse the slightly elevated Promenade looking for birds on or over the sea or in the grounds of the neighbouring private school.

Today we parked up early morning and were soon in this familiar and comforting groove.  Some things weren’t as usual though, thanks to a sea fret you couldn’t see Barrow across the bay or the Lake District fells and certainly not Snowdonia to the south.  Blackpool Tower was just about discernible through the gloom.  Restricted visibility can focus the mind on things you would normally overlook though, and today some of the bird world’s serially overlooked were passing over in numbers.

There’s a term for a variety of birds from different families with nothing else in common – little brown job (or LBJ for short).  I think it’s partly a self-deprecating thing for people who are outfaced by similar looking families of birds like warblers and sparrows.  But I think there’s also some kind of value judgement in the term, the implication that larger and more colourful birds are inherently more interesting and worthy of our attention.

Meadow Pipits moved north through the leaden sky in small groups and singletons.  They are a classic ‘LBJ’, a blend of olive and buff hues with a bit of black chest streaking.  Seen really well they have orange legs which offset the browns, and long hind claws that rule out other pipit species.  They also have a weak ‘see see see’ call that doesn’t look distinctive on paper, but once you get to know it is surprisingly distinctive and separates them from the wagtails and finches often in the same movements.

In the hour I was birding whilst Jane was beachcombing I counted over 500 Meadow Pipits going through, bound for the uplands of Cumbria and in many cases far beyond to breed.  They have a jerky hesitancy about their flight, which suggests they might drop out of the sky at any point when you know full well they can handle long distance movements.  On days of good visibility many will emphasise this by striking out across Morecambe Bay towards Black Combe, in the limited visibility today they all seemed to be on a due north bearing.

Earlier in the week many of the countries wintering Whooper Swans started their journeys to Iceland en masse. The birds that had sought seasonal refuge on the South Lancashire mosses and coastal plain moved through the Fylde and on across the sands.  These movements were all over social media, as people shared images, and flocks were tracked over scores of miles across different counties.  A similar departure of Norfolk flocks made the national birding headlines.

So there is some kind of size and colour discrimination going on here.  A hundred or so noisy swans and everyone takes notices, fivefold more Meadow Pipits undertaking the similar wonder of migration in the same week in the same place and barely anyone notices.  But I noticed…

This is a piece Stephen wrote as part of his participation in Litfest’s New Writing North West Nature and Environment workshops.

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