Cattle Egret #2 for Frodsham Marsh by Tony Broome
An early start and out of bed for 6.30 am, made the toast, sandwiches and coffee for another days birding Frodsham Marsh. I was hoping to be on site for 8am … wrong! My car was full of work stuff from a busy week and had to be emptied, that was once I’d got into the car! I couldn’t open the doors, the temperature being -4c and the car door frames were completely frozen shut! The pitfalls of working in all weathers and terrain. A little perseverance and eventually I was heading west. The roads were like glass and even the M56 hadn’t been gritted, my wheels sliding on a couple of occasions.
I stopped off at Costa Coffee in Frodsham (other coffee outlets are available…eds) and got my usual take-out latte fix with orange syrup (well, it is Christmas!). It was unusually busy…but I realised it was me that was late…being after 9 am. I drove over the motorway bridge at Marsh Lane, turned left and headed for No.6 tank to do the walk that I’ve decided suits me at the moment. The open water on the tank was virtually empty with ice covering most of it, a small number of Common Teal and Lapwings were huddled at the far side in what little water was open. It had warmed up, being a balmy -2c.
I began to walk along the track towards No’s 3 and 4 tanks. A small group of five Ruff flew in from the west and disappeared over to the far side. I finally approached the western end of No.3 when I suddenly realised, I needed Wellington’s. The boots were warmer but a pair of wellies would have suited a bash of bog trotting looking for Jack Snipe. Muttering, I turned and went back to the car, making the decision to drive around to No.4 tank and off the marsh for a comfort and coffee break in Church Street. The day seemed to be rushing past me and I hadn’t done anything yet. Returning back to the marsh I meet Arthur Harrison by chance and after exchanging pleasantries and enquiring about the other Frodsham regulars, I wondered where there were? No sign of Frank, who, it turned out, had slipped on the ice and injured his thigh and elbow quite badly. Also, no sign of Bill either?
The tracks were virtually undrivable, the pot holes full of deep water, but I was just glad to had arrived at last to the corner of No.4/3 and 6 tanks. I walked out to my favourite view-point, the north-east corner of the tank overlooking Frodsham Score. I put my rucksack down and got the toast and coffee out before scanning the Score. It was a fabulous spot, offering virtually a 360 degree view. The swans and geese were a long way to the west and the tide was out.
There were thousands of Lapwings and Golden Plovers which periodically erupted into a blizzard of birds as unseen raptors ambushed them out amongst the creeks. I stood and took it all in, munching on the toast and marmalade, savouring the peace and isolation. There was always something to see and my intention was to wander around any flooded marshy patches and to wait for the Starling roost.
The wind was from the west but felt very cold, even as the temperature went into the positive side of zero degrees. I pulled by snook higher to cover my nose, tightened the drawstring on my gloves and put my hood up. It was going to be a long, very cold afternoon. I idly counted the cattle on No.3 and casually scanned towards Marsh Farm through my binoculars and immediately noticed a small white shape in the distance flying towards me. A gull? No, too white. Oh, an egret, probably a Little, but it looked ‘odd’. Somehow the wings looked shorter and it had a stiffer wing beat. Maybe not. I watched it come towards me. Alarm bells started to ring, especially as it suddenly veered towards the cattle and dropped in amongst them. Little’s didn’t do that! I swiveled the scope towards it and peered expectantly at the bird and couldn’t believe my eyes, it was indeed a Cattle Egret! I watched, feeling a sense of mild euphoria. I’d missed the first one for Frodsham Marsh last year and it was great to actually find my own instead. Logic told me that it was probably the Burton Marsh bird wandering further afield. I took off my gloves and got my camera out.
The egret was on the edge of the herd and still a long way off so my first efforts were very record shot-ish. I began to make phone calls to the locals. Bill didn’t answer so I sent him a text. Frank didn’t answer either. Arthur did…and I believe he, immediately left his lunch on the table, Marie Celeste – like and headed back to the marsh. Frank called me, nursing his sore limbs from his fall earlier. However, the painkillers had began to work and a Cattle Egret on his local patch was too much of a temptation for him to stay house-bound and he too hobbled into his car and drove down. No reply from Bill again as I called. Where was he? Eventually, I got a strange text back asking me if I was on the marsh today? None of my attempts had reached him and he was about as far east as you can go, along the River Weaver. I text him back. ‘Cattle Egret on No3’….to which I got an even stranger reply back…’Seriously?’ ….but was then on his way in no particular hurry as always.
After all this messaging I’d almost forgot about the Cattle Egret and when I tried to relocate it, it wasn’t there anymore! I scanned in desperation. Had it flown off? The others were heading my way as I searched. It suddenly walked out of the grass and into the open. Phew! It was still here. I crept closer and hid on the back side of a small mound by the ‘Splashing Pool’ and managed to get some better photographs. It hardly ever stopped moving and I missed the best shots when my battery ran out and I had to change it, cursing as I dropped it into the grass. My hands were freezing.
The egret had an interesting way of feeding. It would deliberately goad the cattle, walking up to them and standing in front of their noses, which seemed to irritate them and they chased it. Then it would stand nearby, neck extended and waving from side to side while keeping its head perfectly still, whilst it fluffed up its crown feathers. It was bizarre to watch and I can’t say I’ve noticed it before. It would then run around the rear of the cattle and pick up prey items. It also fed out in the open away from the cattle, following a strip of disturbed earth through some sheep. Bill and I watched it as it caught and gulped down a vole, probably a Short-tailed Field Vole, a nice fulsome meal.
Typically, the Cattle Egret, a small white egret with a pronounced jowl. The bill was orangey-yellow, the cere pale yellow-green and the eye pale yellow with a dark iris. The short, stocky legs and feet greyish possibly with a pinkish tone in places. Overall it was all white with just a hint of a peach or apricot wash around the crown, jowls and breast.
As Bill and I watched it, it moved into the canal pool area and we lost sight of it around 3.15 pm. We didn’t see it fly but I guess with the cattle being out on No.3, it will stay around. Unfortunately Paul Ralston turned up just after it moved out of sight, but the bird looked settled and I guess during the course of its stay those who want to add it to their Frodsham Marsh list will catch up with it. I returned to my car and topped the coffee flask up with boiling water from my mobile primus stove and then returned to the watch where we stood in the falling temperatures, eating chocolate bars in eager anticipation of the forthcoming Starling murmuration that would be treating us to a show.
Dusk fell as we waited and as the Starlings began to arrive, we were treated to a spectacular sunset. They swirled around in various flocks, one numbering thousands, which enveloped the cattle on No.3 like some dark cloak as they landed for one last feed before bedding down. Interestingly, the birds roosted in several different areas, making me wonder if they changed their roost nightly in an attempt to outwit the waiting raptors. All in all, a very enjoyable day on the marsh.
Tony Broome (and images).