November Almanac: Bittern sweet

As autumn inches towards winter wildlife spotting might be more rare on the Fylde Coast, but that just makes them all the more special.

This month’s almanac will focus in depth on a couple of contrasting experiences available with birds that are rare in Blackpool and which can be enjoyed in November.

The first of these is the shorebird roost at North Shore. This is below the old cabin lift on the perimeter of the old Maxwell’s Boating Pool which is now a go-kart track. At high tide shorebirds that feed on the sands off the town perch or sit on the external walls of the structure until feeding becomes available again.

Shorebirds roost at the old cabin lift in North Shore. Photo: Donna Hannigan

The main two species involved have instructive English names. Redshanks have red legs, and the Old English ‘shank’ can also be seen in the name of greenshanks and spotted redshanks that also occur locally.

Turnstones are so named because of their habit of turning stones over to look for prey, like sand hoppers and the like which are caught unawares.

Redshank are sometimes called the ‘warden of the marshes’ because they are so wary of human approach. The North Shore roost is the best place to view them locally without a telescope or powerful binoculars because they have sussed out that they are safe there, and allow relatively close approach without taking flight.

Turnstones by contrast are generally fairly approachable. A number of the birds on this stretch have become habituated to the fisherman who also sit out the high tides here, and will wait for scraps of bait. A rather macabre fact about turnstones is that they have been known to feed on human corpses washed ashore, but this reflects them being opportunists rather than blood thirsty.

In bright sunlight they may have a purplish sheen in summer but purple sandpipers are really a species that have a good PR firm.

What I particularly wanted to highlight about this roost though, is the presence during the winter months of arguably Blackpool’s rarest bird – the purple sandpiper. A small roost used to occur on North Pier and more recently they have moved to the boating lake. Numbers have fluctuated, and after an apparently terminal decline in numbers bounced back to half a dozen a few years back. These days there’s only a couple that visit us, it’s a species that is likely to retreat north with climate change so we may be in last chance to see territory, but let’s hope not.

Purple sandpipers are a species that have a good PR firm. In bright sunlight they may have a purplish sheen in summer, but basically they are a small, rotund shorebird generally picked out from the similarly sized turnstones by more uniform colours and yellow legs.

Arguably Blackpool’s rarest bird, the purple sandpiper (Creative Commons)

An encounter that will generally require more patience is bittern watching at Marton Mere. The bittern is a secretive relative of the heron which has streaked black and brown plumage to enable it to camouflage in the reed-bed habitats it favours.

The scientific name Botaurus Stellaris includes a reference to bulls because the male Bitterns in spring give out a loud ‘booming’ call that can be heard from long distances. They don’t summer in  Blackpool, they only come here outside the breeding season so they are heard more than seen in the town.

Bitterns need extensive reed-beds to be able to breed successfully. We don’t have those on the Fylde and the nearest one is at Leighton Moss, Silverdale. In winter they are less territorial and can use smaller reed-beds and for many years Marton Mere has been a reliable site.  Coverage of the site has reduced for a number of reasons but it seems pretty clear that the number of visiting bitterns has reduced.

They were seen to climb up reed stems towards dusk and snatch starlings out of the air as they came into roost.

A decade or so ago there were several bitterns pushed into the area in harder winters and they could be observed staking out different areas at the edge of the Mere. We can’t be sure but it is likely that some of these birds were coming in from the Continent, and numbers have dropped more recently as they can ‘short stop’ and winter nearer home.

One interesting facet of the behaviour of these birds when numbers peaked was that they were seen to climb up reed stems towards dusk and snatch starlings out of the air as they came into roost.

Now we generally get one or two bitterns each winter at the Mere. They can often appear quite early, suggesting they may not be coming as far as some in the past. The former option of scanning the water’s edge towards dusk can still work, but there are no guarantees.

In many ways the best bet is probably to ensconce in the metal container hide on the north bank and hope to see a bird moving between feeding and roosting sites. The Fylde Bird Club hide on the south bank is another option but is only open to members. Alternatively stand towards dusk in the north-east corner as they often drop in there towards dusk. Good luck!

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