The first real frost of this winter was blown into the North West overnight, waking up to a cold bedroom was not the most pleasant way to start the day, windows frosted up, the caravan chilled through, the steam from the kettle condensing all over the kitchen…
This will be the last week on the coast this year, as much as we enjoy being away from home here in the caravan its simply too cold over the winter months, living in what is essentially a tin box with limited insulation and the heating has its limits, it’s time to pack up and retreat to a brick built house.
Strong coffee and toast get the day started, I’d already checked and packed the bike the previous night, the only task was to fill a flask of tea and get going, full winter clothing and the biggest warmest gloves for at least the first hour. The sky and the roads are clear, leaving at nine o’clock means the workers have left the roads to the odd farm vehicle and just me. My breath has soaked the buff that’s covering my mouth, I have to be conscious of not deep breathing cold air these days and slowly climb up the first rise of the day.
I already know that the tide times are perfect today for a visit to Sunderland Point but I want to time my arrival just as the tide turns so I get to watch the birds being pushed onshore, time for another coffee at Glasson Dock. There’s a new cafe opened up there, well a replacement really but a friendly welcome, a good looking menu and most importantly it’s warm in there. The sun has now risen enough to take the sting out of the cold air and I get pedalling again, heading down the trail towards Lancaster, I stop by the overflow from Burrow Beck to watch for kingfishers, it’s not unusual to see them flying out from the tunnel towards the estuary but sadly none today.
Moving on towards the next vantage point I stop and get the binoculars out and count eight Egrets, again a common sight around here, twenty years ago a single bird would have had the twitchers out in force, I can also see a flock of Knott on the far side, maybe by the time I get to Sunderland Point they will be close enough to get a better view, at this point I’m regretting not bringing a bigger pair of binoculars.
As I hit the last section of the trail some movement in the drainage ditch catches my eye, I stop and try and focus the binoculars but it’s gone, I’ve seen kingfishers in this ditch before so stand the bike aside and wait a few minutes, a movement ten yards further up the ditch reveals a Water rail, the red beak being the give away, these beautiful grey and brown birds are notoriously shy and difficult to see in their usual habitat, it’s only when they break cover that you see them and today this bird is giving me the best display I’ve seen. Back when I used to spend a lot of time photographing birds I rarely saw Water rails and usually only fleeting views that never gave time to focus the camera, so this was something special and I took it as a good omen for later on.
It was still cool when I got to Lancaster and giddy with my rail sighting I sat and stared around the Lune for twenty minutes looking for otters, nothing today but maybe my timing was wrong as the water was still flowing towards the sea, try again on the way back. Over the bridge and round the back of Salt Ayre racing circuit to the overflow from the tip, a quick scan around the reeds didn’t provide anything today, the estuary was full of gulls and shelducks though, there must be Water rails in there I reckon.
Heading across the tidal road is always a pleasure, sometimes the road is dry, sometimes wet but more often than not it’s muddy and rutted, the overlapping tide leaving sand and debris behind, today it’s dry more or less all the way which makes me think that even if I get caught by incoming tide I’ll still get across, and even if that fails plan B is to head over to Middleton Sands. It’s a bit of a false concern today as the cold is what will drive me back, an hour on the beach was enough to give me that bone deep chill.
As it always does the tide turns before my eyes, it’s subtle at first, you doubt yourself, and then it becomes very obvious, soon enough it’s moving fast enough to cause some anxiety even though I know I’ve an hour before the road gets covered. The birds, mostly redshank as far as I can see, seem to know when it happens, they are much closer to the water than I am so can obviously see the change happening, however I prefer to think that they just work on instinct, they seem to gather closer together as if to gain some kind of group courage to face the rushing water, moving quickly up the shore until reaching a point where the group decides that a quick fly around is required.
The flock hits the sky, joined by others from along the beach, it’s almost as though they need to stretch their wings having been earth bound for too long, landing further along the beach they immediately separate and run down to the waters edge. The shelducks move onto the water presumably to exercise their legs by attempting to stay still against the flow and the curlews continue to just mind their own business and keep a low profile.
Looking back towards Lancaster there’s the distinct sign of a starling murmuration going on, only small but definitely happening, maybe the evening will provide a good show.
I’m cold now, a cup of tea from the flask and a brief chat with some other birdwatchers about the starlings and I’m on my way, heading back across the causeway, the water levels must be five meters higher than earlier, stopping on the bridge to watch the curlews being pushed in, it always surprises me how big these birds are when you get to see one up close. It’s about one o’clock now so time for a butty and the last of the tea, I pick a bench on the Lancaster quayside, keeping an eye on the water only provides a few cormorants this time and I’m soon back on the bike and slowly retracing my steps, stopping occasionally to look at the egrets and redshanks. By the time I reach Cockerham the tide is almost all the way in, and the birds are literally ten yards away from me, once you get settled on the bench and stop moving the birds soon forget you and start going about their business again, I had some fabulous views of a air of redshanks fighting, jumping into the air around each other, feathers ruffled and screeching away, they never seem to harm each other and it’s never clear who won!
Over to my left and there’s more signs of starlings gathering, I can see that they are over the salt marsh near Bankend Farm so I set off along the coastal path and get comfy on the bench outside the farm, I often chat with the farmer here, if he sees me he’ll come and have a chat but he’s driving tractors around the farmyard this afternoon. The suns falling rapidly now and there over the other side of the marsh I can see the starlings doing their thing, there must be thousands of them now, making those very distinctive patterns in the sky, just too far away to get a good view even with the binoculars, I decide to head over to the other side whilst there’s enough light.
Of course it’s obvious what happens now, as I’m riding along the track the starlings fly towards me and beyond, back over the farm where I’ve just been sat, the only good thing is that for a few seconds I’ve literally got a sky full of them right over head. Once again I get settled onto the big chair and watch them from a distance, not a classic display tonight but enough to round out a great birding day, there’s only one thing left to do now and that’s to have a pint of good beer at Farm Yard Ales, the warmth of the tap room was very inviting and I stayed for two.
Leaving the pub in proper countryside pitch blackness was a real pleasure, it must have been the beer jacket but I was warm and my legs felt good so I decided to take the long way back to the caravan, my front light doing a grand job of illuminating the back lanes made for a really pleasant ride, I think that I was just putting off arriving back at the cool box/caravan.
Sixty two miles riding, seeing some fantastic wildlife and a supper of fish and chips completed a perfect day, just need to get under the duvets and I’m done!
Words and pictures – Steve Makin