Monday 19 October 2020

Of missing friends, past glories and damp chats 16th-18th October 2020

It has been a strange few days. The highs of Thursday and the joy of watching Vigo the Lammergeier contemplating a Channel crossing were tempered by the funeral of my birding friend of thirty years, Phil Street on Friday morning after a tough two years of cancer struggle. I may not have been able to attend the outside element of the ceremony but he was in my thoughts as I headed for Suffolk that morning. Phil was an integral part of the Met Essex birding scene and a fixture of many a Rainham Marshes balcony session when a good blow was forecast or an afternoon at the end of the ramp waiting for Raptor O’clock with him leisurely slumped in his little bucket camping chair, sunhat and shades on and roll up and bins at the ready with the rest of the Motley Brew by his side. He is already missed but never forgotten.


Driving did not really help me process this very well on Friday morning so I diverted on the way to Languard Point for a walk and a reminisce about somewhere I had spent part of every visit to my Grandparents in Felixstowe when I was a kid and many a happy day on spontaneous twitches over the years.

The Lancy Garden

It was cool but bright and I had a pleasant hour wandering around the common and staring into the observatory compound remembering my first Western Subalpine Warbler in April 1988, the Paddyfield Chiffchaff around the same time, the first ‘proper’ Blyth’s Pipit in November 1994, the line of birders doing Chad over a fence for the Lanceolated Warbler on the 26th September 1997, a tooting Trumpeter Finch in May 2005 and my memorable encounter with the Crested Lark on the 21st October 1996 two weeks after I had dipped it there.

Towards Felixstowe


There were birds to see on this visit too with a Ring Ouzel dropping in and Brambling going over while Goldcrests bounced around the brambles and Holm Oaks but I could not find anything rarer. Four Redwings were on the Common and were avidly feeding and actually allowed a close approach. The sea was covered in freight ships stacked high with containers in and out of the busy docks and skeins of Cormorants moved out from the Orwell to the coast.



MSC Venice

Patriotic Cormorants


Time to head on and into the traffic but after some successful wiggling I got us to the Wherry Hotel in Oulton Broad in time for dinner and couple of pints of smooth Wherry ale to send me to sleep.

The plan for Saturday was: get up have early breakfast, drop Andrea off at the Wrens for the day leaving Antony and I to bimble along the coast looking for eastern waifs and strays before dinnour out back in Oulton in the evening.  The first two went well but just before getting to the Wrens house - a mere six minutes from the hotel-  news broke of a Rufous-bush Chat (other names are available) at Stiffkey.  This was the first since 1980 (just checked in my Poyser: Rare Birds book that I got as a school prize in my last year in school in 1989) and the last actually twitchable one was in 1963.

However, I was well aware that Antony does not, as a rule, twitch and what with the current COVID situation not improving I suspected that we would still be staying local rather than potemtially mingling with any birder in the UK available on a Saturday with an 8am start time...

Much to my delight, he said ‘Let’s go!’ and so we did and just over 90 minutes later we were approaching the village with no news since 8am and having discovered a line a cars sensible park on the south side of the village we safely tagged ourselves on the end and walked up to the A149. 

There was no manic rushing and I even stopped to take some shots of a fantastic Shire horse galloping around a paddock. It was still spitting as we crossed the road and then turned onto a footpath called Hollow Lane that took us down to the middle of the campsite wood passing dweeking Brambling, Siskins, Redpolls, ticking Robins and Goldcrests on the way. This was a much more pleasant way to approach then trying to squeeze into the Green Way and antagonising the locals.  Up above skeins of Pink-feet headed ‘winked’ west in the gloom and Brents grumbled on the saltmarsh.

Pink-feet in the grey

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The crowd was already visible out on the saltmarsh as it had not long be refound in a clump of sueda and as we passed max going the other way he advised on the best way to get out there.  The crowd looked densely packed but in reality it was not.

We chose the first side of the horseshoe of birders and headed for a spot set back from the line but still with a view. Like many others we also had our masks on. Now, I know that none of this was strictly appropriate but everyone was well behaved and it was no worse than queuing up in a supermarket.

Not very flattering but you get the idea

As we approached I stepped into one of the hidden saltmarsh rills in a suitably nonchalant manner, said hello to James L who was just in front, stepped back out, raised my bins at the same time as Antony only to see the Bushchat briefly perched on top before a good fly around the clump flashing that wondrous white tipped rufous tail. Well that was easy.


Rufous-tailed Bushrobinchatbird - taken by a friend. Number 538 on my UK list.

How I saw it for a second on the top! - Ben Rumsby


It was great to scan about the assembled birders and see faces I have not seen in ten years or so  as well as the steady arrival of familiar friends from closer to home but it was not a day for shaking hands and long chats and more often than not it was a brief wave and acknowledgement. I have not been on a full blown proper day one twitch for a long time.  It is not that I suddenly became anti-twitching or went all green and anti-travel – I just got fed up with the time spent actually in cars.  The thrill of the chase and camaraderie will always be there but the actual desire to go any distance (even Norfolk) for a new bird is diminished. Only when some sort of instantaneous teleport is invented will be British list begin to move along again.

There was some seriously inappropriate footwear out there but the prize went to the gent in front with the black leather loafers. His feet must have been freezing. The nomenclature of this species was also causing a problem and a party near us was trying to work out what species it was they had actually come to see as ‘it was not in the Collins’. ‘It must be from the far east to not be in there’ one was heard to say. I should have resisted but could not help enlighten them. ‘Oh I have seen them in Turkey’ one of them said despondently. 

The crowd was split by a very deep channel and the bird was thankfully isolated from us by another but it did mean that you could only see the bird if it popped up where you were and over the next 90 minutes it did that twice more but not where we were standing.  The driving drizzle was turning to rain and so we backed away and left the crowd to await further glimpses.

We have both seen this enigmatic species showing off on clumps of Spiny Burnet in Lesvos  so waiting for a bedraggled vagrant to stumble back into the open in the rain quickly lost its appeal whereas a showy Pallas’s Warbler back in the wood drew us away.  As it was, the Bushchat did not show again for another 45 minutes and we would have been on the wrong side again anyway.

The Pallas’s on the other hand was a show stopper and came down to eye level at no more than 15 feet range flashing its pale lemon rump and multitudinous stripes. It soon moved back up into the canopy so we ambled back down Hollow Lane, stopping to check a garden for errant Bluetails and rescuing a snail that had probably spent an eternity trying to squeeze out of a hole in a plastic bottle embedded in the garden wall!


Pallas’s Warbler - Antony Wren

Pallas’s Warbler - Antony Wren

Pallas’s Warbler - Antony Wren

Please help me!

Of course it stopped raining when we got back to the car and with just a couple of hours to go before we had to start heading back to Lowestoft, we decided to go east along the coast but we thwarted at any stop by the sheer number of ‘people’ out enjoying the now sunny afternoon. You could park almost nowhere so we had to drive past Walsey Hills and its scarce warblers and instead ambled down the Iron Road at Salthouse. It was quiet but Brent and a Gannet moved offshore and flocks of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Linnets were inland over the salty pools and grazing marsh where Marsh Harriers quartered off towards Cley.

Coasting Brent Geese

Towards Cley

Salthouse Church


I had just joked with Antony about Norfolk Twite and the fact that they are more often than not Linnets when we both heard the ‘tweek’ of Twite and amazingly two were located on the fenceline with the Linnets. A Goldcrest came up out of the grass and continued to works its way inland along the fenceline and flocks of Curlews moved over prehistorically silhouetted against the sky.




Goldcrest - Antony Wren

Our time was up and it was time to head back and keep our dinner appointment at the Copper Smokehouse in Oulton which was truly sensational and i would recommend it heartily to anyone up that way although you may want a light breakfast the following morning!

Sunday morning dawned grey but it was still a light north-north easterly.  The original plan was to head up to the north coast but instead I made my way to Waxham for a walk along the coastal path. Unfortunately the Bluetail had departed but I did see a very cold, collared Pied Flycatcher and a heap of orange breasted Robins and tiny Goldcrests. It felt like there should be more but there quite simply wasn’t.


Pied Flycatcher - ignore that collar!


A large flock of Pink-feet were in the adjacent fields and as they took off they left behind six birds within which I spied the vivid orange legs of a Tundra Bean Goose which was a nice surprise. 

I did not even realise that the Tundra Bean Goose was in this shot!

Pink-footed Geese

Tundra Bean Goose and Pinkies

Waxham Church - it got a bit dark

The skies were darkening all around as I walked back and I chose not to drive the two hours up to the coast to Holme where three Bluetails were cavorting and instead headed homewards with a brief stop at Great Yarmouth Cemetery to look for sprites but it was just too big to do by yourself and I had to be content with some rabid Squirrels and a few flyover finches.

Not quite what I hoped to see perching on gravestones...

'Give me a peanut or I will savage your leg...'

Birders always want more but I should not really complain with two new species to ink in during just one week and autumn is not over yet...

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