Saturday 27 February 2016

Brazen Buntings and Tideline Kites - Norfolk 26th February 2016

Thursday morning saw me heading up the M11 to a work meeting in Norwich and the early start to avoid traffic on the southern half of the journey meant that once I had secured a cup of coffee at Thetford I made for Thetford Warren to see if I could find any Woodlarks to go with my brew. It was very cold and still with not much hint of the blue sky that was to dominate the day while I was at my meeting in the dark purple basement of the King’s Centre.  There were even a few solitary snowflakes as I wandered out onto the heath to investigate the old rabbit warreners Lodge building. Away from the road I could indeed hear the hoped for Woodlarks although they remained invisible along with rattling Mistle Thrushes, mournful Siskins and a calling Great Spot.  

The remains of Warren Lodge

With coffee consumed and ears cold I headed back on my way. The meeting with fellow RSPB staff about how we, as an organisation, engages with ‘keen birders’ was excellent and productive and the day flew by before I escaped on the park & ride. I had already decided that coming to Norfolk for a meeting and not going proper birding was just wrong so I had arranged to stay with a friend just south of the city in Wymondham where I can heartily recommend the Railway pub for some fantastic grub and a nice pint of Adnams Ghost Ship. Cheers Angie!

Suitably refreshed I bid my farewells and headed out at about seven the next day for the slightly wiggly route to Blakeney.  It only took about an hour and I was soon in the Quay car park. There was not a breath of wind and I had not even got my bins out when a female Hen Harrier cruised through putting up seven Snipe from the marsh and given the Wigeon cause for flight. 

I suspect that the last time I walked this seawall was for the Greater Sandplover in August 1992 but it was the pool on the right of the seawall that brought back memories of one of my first trips to the Norfolk coast on the 27th September 1986 when we were amongst the first people to see a smart juvenile Citrine Wagtail tripping around the muddy edges. I can still hear that rasping call and everyone celebrating that they had nailed the id. 

Memory trigger...

I just dug out that old notebook and brought back memories of my first Yellow-browed Warblers and a cracking Wryneck at Wells Woods the same day.

Citrine Wagtail - September 1986

Anyway, I digress... the main reason for the visit was to try and find the flock of Lapland Buntings that had been around for a few weeks.  Up to seven have been seen with a similar number of Twite so both species together like in the good old days would be great.  One chap was just leaving as I arrived and told me that at least five were grovelling in the grass but that he had not seen the Twite. No sooner had he turned his back than the latter flew up out of the grass calling and landed briefly on the fence before heading off towards Cley... thankfully he was close enough for a shout from me to get him onto the birds.

I settled down to watch the Buntings and over the next half hour they came right out into the open and scurried over closer to feed at times no more than eight feet away. They were completely unconcerned about me and infact there were ten on show in a variety of plumages that included a couple of obvious males with much black coming through on the heads and flanks.  

Lapland Bunting - Quite happy with this one!

They were very conversational with much rippling and little, almost Brambling, like dweak calls. I left them where they were and started to walk back. It was so nice to have such confiding birds to myself.   

Five of the ten - just look at that male top right!

Scanning round revealed a very large flock of grumbling Brent Geese and the usual assortment of waders were roosting up over the not very high high tide. I tried not to look too long into the famous duckpond where Garganey and Ferruginous Ducks paddled around with more exotic fayre.

Russ was up there a day before and had slightly better light!
After a chance meeting with Carl Chapman I had directions for Holkham Park and I headed that way in the hope for adding a slightly better looking two winged Fudge to the list.  It was a nice day for bumping into people and a quick chat with the Holmans told me that any birders in the Park would be looking for the pair of Ravens that had been seen for the last few days as this species is still very rare in Norfolk.

The impressive Monument to Edward Coke, 7th Earl of Leicester

I saw no Ravens, or Scaup, or Fudge Duck but it was a very pleasant stroll with the melancholy song of Redwings coming from the huge twisted Sweet Chestnuts, Nuthatches and Treecreepers zipping around and the constant honking from the permanently stroppy Egyptian Geese. I love seeing these perched up in the trees and checking out old stumps and holes. They have such wonderful characters. There were not many Pochard and Tufted Duck to check through and although I did find the nice female Red-crested Pochard my main quarry eluded me. 

On to the Warham crossroads for a long walk down to Burham Overy Dunes and hopefully the Gun Hill Shorelarks. I spent a happy few hours wandering around with the sound of vast flocks of Brent Geese and Pinkfeet filling the air and the constant patrolling by Red Kites and Marsh Harriers giving them cause to flight. The Kites were the undoubted highlight with small groups of three or four drifting lazily across the marsh while Buzzard sat on posts waiting for something to drop down onto. There were simply raptors everywhere and I reckon that I saw at least eight Kites and harriers and the best part of 20 Buzzards with kettles of birds thermalling over the woods and park. How things change.

Red Kite

I was just pondering whether the Spoonbills would be coming back soon when an adult flew into view and I would later see an immature heading out into the creeks to feed at low tide so that answered that question.

Regular goose scanning eventually produced what I thought to be a Black Brant but the back did not look any different than the Dark-bellieds and two of the very helpful Holkham Estate wardens pointed out that it was one of the regular hybrids that has been frequenting the area. 

Brents in a flap
I walked the loop of the beach west towards Scolt head channel but of the Shorelarks there was no sign. I fact the only two species I saw utilising the tide line were four each of Red Kite and Grey Partridge.  The idea of Kites hunting beaches was just plane odd but judging by the crop of one of the birds it had obviously been doing ok. Three Goldeneye were feeding in the low tide channel and I took five to sit down, close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the feeding Curlews, Oystercatchers, Redshank, Grey and Ringed Plover while Black-headed Gulls chatted around them.

Heavy Crop

Giving me the eyeball....

There was more of the same on the way back and a final scan around from up by the road produced four piebald Barnacles with the Pinkies to round things up nicely. It was 2.30 and I was starting to feel under the weather so I headed for home which in typical Friday night tradition became a traffic nightmare and saw me diverting through Thetford and down towards the A14 and Ipswich and the A12 but even then I could not get home with the QEII bridge area being stuffed and after some dinner I gatecrashed the Jacksons place, had tea, cake, watched the Rugby and got home not long before 11pm!

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Jack Frost and his Team after a hard night's work - 24th February 2016

A simple post on a stunning late winter morning.  
I was at RSPB Rainham Marshes a little early today and a thick hoar frost coated everything. The car was reading -2c and there was not a breath of wind on a blue sky sunrise and so I took myself off for a short walk around the Cordite.  

Bird wise it was very quiet with just a couple of Goldcrests, a few Redwings and an optimistic pair of nest building Long-tailed Tits but it was the patterns and myriad forms of the ice needles encrusting every stem, twig, blade of grass, leaf and other surface that mesmerised me.

I will let the pictures do the talking... please click on them and view 'big' in the gallery...

And in that most disappointingly ephemeral way of frost on a sunny day, it was soon losing the battle against the weak rays of Sol climbling above the horizon.

Monday 15 February 2016

Pre-dawn to Post-dusk - North West Norfolk 12th February 2016

It has been a few years since I have been to RSPB Snettisham to witness the spectacle of the high tide wader machinations out on the flats.  Last time we crunched our way down the beach in the freshly fallen snow with Snow Buntings and Shorelarks at our feet but this year has seen these species hard to come by and we had to make do with a glorious sunrise that cast a pink glow across the still exposed mud and highlighted the undersides of the Pinkfeet and Black-headed Gulls that were coming in from their night time roost out in the Wash. 

I did not think that a 6.30 meet was too odious and the calm, still conditions and almost cloudless sky boded well for the first few hours of the day.

Greylags at dawn - Barry Jackson

Pink-feet coming in off the Wash

Waders were already streaming past with Knot, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwits and Oystercatchers in the majority and we soon made it to an appropriate spot with a rather large crowd of expectant onlookers.

Things started well with thousands of birds massing on the mud with groups zooming in over our heads to settle down early on the gravel pits. Turnstones were the first in along with a few Redshank and a couple of Ruff and Golden Plover but it did not take long for the Knot to start to move. The light came and went and then returned at the critical moment when the Peregrine came in for his second attack on the flocks sending them into a cacophonous, snaking, fluid conglomeration of silver, gold and white.

Fishballs - Barry Jackson

Barry Jackson

Barry Jackson

It was a birding experience not about the individual; it was about the collective – the flock as a single amorphous being that was simply BIRD. It was mesmerising and moving and made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and we were lucky enough to have a windless, well lit stage on which the performance could take place.

Avocets, Grey and Ringed Plovers and Curlews were also to be seen and small parties of gleaming Sanderlings arrived late and headed for the beaches rather than muddy spaces. Shelduck, Mallard, Teal and Wigeon bobbed around in the shallows and there were even Pintail and Shoveler out there.  Brent Geese grumbled on the saltmarsh to the south and Pinkfeet continued to arrive overhead.  

I managed some short videos of the pulsing mass of birds - simply mesmerising...

Oystercatchers heading for the pits

Inland, behind us there were large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover wheeling around and a Marsh Harrier quartered the fields.  Skylarks, Rock Pipits and a few Linnets made up the passerines and Goldeneye and Little Grebes were the sparse highlights on the pits.

We walked back in high spirits and Barry found two drake Scaup out on the flat see where even the green sheen to their domed heads could be seen and the Oystercatchers were entertaining as they jammed themselves onto a shingle point.

Oiks on the point - Barry Jackson

We headed straight off to RSPB Titchwell to make use of the facilities and have a cuppa while watching three Bullfinches feeding on Damson buds in the car park.

A swift bit of car amalgamation and we made our way east a little to find the harbour at Brancaster Staithe where a Red-necked Grebe had been present faithfully for some weeks. Strangely, I had had never been there before despite spending lots of time in Deepdale and we had this dapper, dusky necked grebe in sight almost before leaving the car. 

Denis wonders where his camera has gone...

Denis, the Grebe & Sam

Red-necked Grebe - Barry Jackson

Over the next thirty minutes it got seriously papped by everyone as it energetically hunted in the channel just a few yards off shore.  Low tide helped us see it even better and we all loved watching it leap clear of the water as a prelude to a fishing sortie. 

What a wonderful bird...

Three dour, sad eyed Grey Plover stop-start fed on the mud bank and there were singles of both godwits species and a solitary female Merganser fishing further up channel. Turnstones came to see if we had any scraps and a Rock Pipit called from the hull of a yellow dingy. 

Rockit - Denis Tuck

Bar-tailed Godwit - Barry Jackson

With the grebe safely in the bag we headed straight back to RSPB Titchwell for ‘lunch with finches’.  A short walk down to the feeders gave everyone superb views of at least two Bramblings and a dozen Siskins as they came to visit the station. The male Brambling was especially smart with much of the summer blackness wearing through and a single Marsh Tit added a touch of something different.

The water Rail showed incredibly well in the adjacent ditch and was happily unearthing worms and inverts with scarcely a glance up at the throng looking back.  

Water Rail - post worm chomping

I decided against heading out onto the reserve proper and so lunch was spent with even more finches, with the Bullfinches from earlier being replaced in the same Damsons with three pinky Lesser Redpolls.  Some rather rotund but very pretty Woodpigeons feed in the same trees and ogled us with their slightly odd shaped pupils! There are a seriously under rated bird.

The lure of Rough-legged Buzzards dragged us away and across the road to Choseley where we played a game of ‘how many cars can we jam into a field entrance and soft verge?. The answer was nine but the car 'twister' was worth the effort as not only did we see a Rough-leg and at least ten Common Buzzards but I suspect that most of the crew were more impressed with the luminous Yellowhammer and beautifully marked Grey Partridges that were dotted across the fields along with some of their French cousins while the boxing Brown Hares were similarly popular. 

Lovely Grey Partridges

Proper boxing Brown Hares - Denis Tuck

We could probably have spent a little longer here but with time pushing on I opted to head south towards Docking, Flitcham and then Roydon Common to give us a chance of connecting with the mobile but long staying Pallid Harrier. The nine cars precluded a stop at Abbey Farm but we did pass a large flock of Egyptian Geese on route to the common.

Following Alan Davies directions, we headed off through the trees before wending our way up onto the heath so that we could look down onto the bog below. This was another new Norfolk site for me and obviously undergoing some pretty full on conservation work with huge piles of spoil and new looking open water boggy areas. 

A cracking Mistle Thrush just as we left the cars - Barry Jackson

Golden sunlit Roydon Common

We all settled in for a wait while Stonechats fed around us and Meadow Pipits started to arrive for the evening. The Pallid had been coming in at about 4pm so we knew that we had a wait on our hands but the time was well spent relaxing and soaking up the peace and tranquillity of the vista in the low evening light. The crowd slowly grew and by just gone four there were over 70 people present which surprised me but there was still no sign of even the Hen Harriers and we only had some Buzzards and a Marsh Harrier to watch. 

Then suddenly two ringtail Hen Harriers appeared from quite high up and drifted down to the heather. I was expecting a good fly round and perhaps some pipit hunting before bed but both birds glided straight to their regular spot and ditched in the vegetation out of view.

The wait went on and the temperature dropped and then technically the sun had gone down and the light began to fade but still no one left. Another Hen came in and then two more and it was as we were watching this duo that Barry picked up the juvenile male Pallid trying to sneak past us under our noses. I called it but only a few people saw it and I feared that it had gone straight down to roost somewhere. Two minutes later I refound it and managed to get everyone on the right spot as it delicately quartered the bog on long narrow wings. The underparts were a  rich orange buff and the contrasts on the head with pale boa, dark collar, face and cap made it a striking beast. It perched up on a distant post and looked tiny compared to the two ringtail Hens that were still out hunting and after one last sortie out to try for a last minute Mipit it too dived in to the heather and did not return. Mr Jackson certainly earned his 'Spotters Badge' today...

Pat 'resting his feet' and the now 'Not So Quiet' Dave resting everything... 
The fact that it actually looks like someone has dismembered Pat and dumped bits of him in the heather is merely a trick of the camera and at no time did any bodily harm actually befall him...

The crowd murmured its approval at this last gasp performance and started to disperse back to the cars in the gloom. The air was chill and still as we ambled back but there were smiles all round as we packed up to head for home but not before the obligatory Woodcock had found its way onto the list!

As Sam’s wife would say... ‘We ripped the arse out of another day....!’