Sunday 5 February 2017

Ramblings with Bramblings - 4th February 2017

North Norfolk and The Brecks...

And so almost exactly a year after I last got ‘sent’ to Norwich for a work related meeting I found myself heading up the M11 on Friday morning but with just enough spare time to stop off at Thetford Warren with a coffee and the hope of Woodlarks. Initially I did not even have to leave the car as a chap was letting his dog hare about the place in an attempt to get it to speedily empty itself as he was late for work. Meadow Pipits scattered and two dinky Woodlarks got up several times as the hound ran around. After he went I got out and stood quietly by my car and listened to them ‘do-loo-eet’ from the short cover but they did not come up again and I was not going to play dog!

Thetford Warren

The day was spent at the RSPB East of England Offices near Carrow Road with constantly changing weather outside the big windows. I had managed to blag a sofa for the night at Angie’s in Wymondham and a nice meal in The Railway and a couple of Ghost Ships made for a good night’s sleep.

I was up early and out the door before anyone else woke up on Saturday morning and with no wind or rain I decided to head for RSPB Titchwell and the sea.

After a good journey punctuated by a pair of Barn Owls on one road sign at South Creake, I was ready to roll by 8am with the sound of Pink-feet ‘winking’ overhead and a quick succession of three finch year ticks with Lesser Redpoll (sorry, not calling it Common...), Siskin and two ‘dweaking’ Bramblings on the walk down to the centre. 

The place was empty and I had the whole walk down entirely to myself. The sun was now shining and tide well on the way in so I pushed on with only a quick scan or two at the pools but six Marsh Harriers were loafing about, Bearded Tits pinged and Teal popped out from the bottom of the bank in quick succession as I walked along but swam back in as soon as I passed.

Golden Plover and Lapwing swamped the pools and 19 Avocets and a couple of Ruff huddled in the middle. 

Golden Plover

As I neared the sea a flock of about 40 Titchwell Twite (aka Linnets) alighted on the last bramble clump and a Reed Buntings and Dunnocks flicked in the Suaeda.

Two local chaps were already enthusiastically and expressively watching the sea but I decided that after a quick scan I would rather amble the extra yards to the fort and unusually for me, enjoy the solitude.

It was quite simply as good as everyone had said it would be with rafts of seaduck in every direction. To the right an amorphous blog of oil slick water became a seething mass of feeding frenzy Common Scoter and the estimates of upwards of a thousand birds do not seem at all farfetched. Bill gulls were constantly in attendance, diving down on a duck as soon as it emerged from a dive. This was a largely sole species flock with just the odd Velvet Scoter around the edges. 

Part of the Common Scoter flock
To my left and further out were four large rafts of Long-tailed Ducks in every shade of patchwork white, brown and pink with some fine plumes amongst them. They were steaming west the whole time and would dive in unison with their open wings visible as they did so. It was spectacular and I had not seen anything like it outside of Scotland. Just how many there were was almost impossible to say given the distance but I estimated that there were somewhere near 200 across the vista.

Closer to shore was another flock of Scoter and a scan suggested that most were Velvets so I set about counting. There were 94 in this one flock along with a few Commons and Long-tails and I ended up with 118 all told which I believe to possibly be a site record. There were lots of chocolate brown immatures with almost no face markings whatsoever while some of the females were quite striking with their double white facial disks. Adult males were in the minority and I did find several imposing drakes with their yellow and black bills, white eyes and eye-shadow and vivid red legs.

I know it does not look much but this is part of the Velvet flock...

Scattered amongst all of these were four female and an immature drake Eider, 19 Mergansers, 43 Goldeneye, Slavonian Grebe, 30 Great Crested Grebe, Cormorants that included a couple of sinensis type patterned birds, 16 Red-throated Divers and two hulking Great Northerns.

I was trying to ascertain what they were feeding on and the only things that I kept seeing them come up with were Razor Clams which after a bit of crunching, they seemed to swallow whole! They whole scene evoked so many memories of distant birding trips from early YOC mini-bus adventures in the late 1980s when the seaduck used to mass off Hunstanton Cliffs in the winter and where most of us ticked almost all of the species on view here.  Various Scottish encounters came to the fore such as my 16th birthday in April 1988 at Embo Pier near Dornoch where I found my first drake King Eider among the masses while hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks yodelled along the tide line and a flock of 52 Slavonian Grebes drifted by in a full mix of plumages to the successful Forster’s Tern twitch on Christmas Eve 1995 to Musselburgh just east of Edinburgh were the sea duck actually stole the show once again.

I came away as the flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits, Knot, Grey Plover, Sanderling and Oystercatchers slowly converged on my spot as the tide pushed them in and took a slow potter back towards the centre as the sun was eclipsed by a bank of low cloud.

Barwtits & Knot

Barwtits & Knot

Bar-tailed Godwit

Spherical Grey Plover

I added little on my return leg but the Brent Geese and Curlews were entertainingly close and a diversion along the Fen Trail duly added a pair of gaudy Red-crested Pochards on Patsy’s Pool.  

Brent Geese, Blackwit and Teal

Dark-bellied Brent Geese


Red-crested Pochard
I was dithering about what way to go, east, west or south and ended up heading back east along the coast road which would allow me a chance to scan Burnham and Holkham from the road. It was still quite grey but with no wind it was easy to pick birds up. The fields off towards the dunes were covered in Pink-feet with Brents in more discreet flocks along with masses of grazing Wigeon interspersed with Curlew, Ruff, Dunlin, Lapwing and Starlings. The Great White Egret was out on one of the pools and the hoped for Red Kite was lazily quartering the marshes while Buzzards were dotted around on posts.  A Merlin whizzed through after a thrush and Red-legged Partridges and fluffy Brown Hares were hunkered down in fields behind me while a surprise Firecrest was calling persistently from the roadside hedge.

From here I did indeed turn south complete with a new and interesting accelerating engine air noise that my people in the know were able to tell me was a ruptured turbo hose and to take things easy to get me home.

But was I going to give up on my day out? No, of course not so I continued on down to Lynford Arboretum where a swift hour did indeed allow me to add Crossbill, Marsh Tit and Nuthatch to the list but I was too early for Hawfinches and so decided to go to Santon Downham for a while and come back later.

A typical Crossbill view...

As soon as I turned off the A134 into the lane I started to encounter Brambling with small parties erupting from the verge. There was nothing as I drove into the St Helen’s picnic place until I reached the far end and there I found the main flock. It was huge and much larger than I expected and I reckon that nearly 300 birds were present. The noise when they took off was clearly audible and similarly when they were under the Beeches searching for mast all you could hear was the sound of dry leaves being flipped out of the way. I tried a little bit of video to try to capture the feel of things!


There are seven Brambling in this shot...

And a much better couple from Karl Price...

Brambling... Karl Price

Brambling... Karl Price

Marsh Tits, Nuthatches and numerous Chaffinches were also around and coming down to the seed on the usual posts but I was very surprised to find a Willow Tit this side of the bridge and persistently calling although I never did see it.

Marsh Tit... Karl Price
I retraced my steps to the road and walked down to the bridge where I met a mum with her teenage son out birding. They were checking out the hedgeline across the newly cleared area and I helped them to pick out some Brambling as well as a flock of nine Lesser Redpolls that had obviously come down to drink while they showed me a Kingfisher.  Apparently Crossbills had been doing likewise earlier. Matthew and his mum asked if they could walk along the river with me to look for Willow Tits and his hoped for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We soon found an obliging Marsh Tit, Treecreepers, Siskins and no-less than four Water Rails but it was not until this afternoon that I twigged that a singing tit that I called as Marsh on the other side of the river was indeed a Willow so I hope that he gets to read this at some point. To think that I grew up listening to both species singing in the countryside of south west Essex and yet now hear them so infrequently anywhere that I get them confused.

Marsh Tit is tenuously hanging on in Essex and yet Willow Tit has been extinct now for about ten years with the last bird visiting a garden in Dunmow if memory serves me correct. What a pity. It is even on my RSPB Rainham Marshes and Dagenham Chase lists from the mid 1990’s when singing males were picked up but like the purring Turtle Doves present at the time I cannot envisage it even happening again.

A Grey Wagtail was delicately feeding on a floating weed mat and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were busily drumming and at that point I left Matthew with his woodpecker quest and headed back to Lynford.

The sun had re-emerged and it was a delightful late afternoon and the walk down through the Snowdrops produced forty Bramblings overhead and a brief Hawfinch in the side ride before the main event down by the paddocks.

Hawfinch... Karl Price
I only stayed half an hour but soon picked up 18 Hawfinches as they came into pre-roost in the pines where they actually favoured a budding Ash tree for a preen before dropping out of view.  A Marsh Tit was singing loudly in the hedge and I should have twigged then about the Santon bird and two Bullfinches had found some buds to nibble. 

The Paddocks

I did like this herd of young Highlands

Coal, Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits were attending the sole feeder by the bridge and Siskins bedecked in green and gold twittered musically as they came down for a drink. The pair of Crossbills that I saw earlier also came back but only perched up briefly.  

And a very smart bright Dunnock

Coal Tit... Karl Price

Crossbill... Karl Price

Siskin... Karl Price

With the light holding I decided to chance my luck and head back down to a wood near Thetford that still has Golden Pheasants but not before a huge female Goshawk flew through the trees and windscreen height and rocketed into the adjacent trunks!

I found the spot with no trouble at all but it was not to be and although the wood was alive with birds there were no gaudy gamebirds to be seen and well after the sun had set I decided that I should really be heading for home with my still working but poorly car...