Monday 14 October 2019

'Toot toot!' 14th October 1989

Like many birders of a certain age, the 14th October 1989 sticks in the memory.  The fact is that 30 years have now past since that fateful telephone call to Birdline in Westleton that sent us rushing (at Dad’s speed) to Holkham in the vain hope that we would manage to see Britain’s one and only Red-breasted Nuthatch.

I will let me notebook take up the story:

Paul Hawkins had joined my family and I for a day out birding in Suffolk and Minsmere was our first stop. We made our way around to the Island Mere Hide to look for a Great White Egret (I saw my first one here back in August 1984) but it was not there although there were quite a few Teal, six Pintail, and many Gadwall. The Kingfishers were performing well as usual, hovering motionaless for quite a long time before taking the plunge. Beardies were calling just outside while the highlight was certainly a Bittern which rose from the reeds, legs dangling before flying towards us and over the hide.

We didn’t  bother with the rest of the reserve as we wanted to move on quickly to Lowestoft (Eds: I presume for Purple Sands) but after phoning Birdline of course. Our plans slightly changed after this course of action... ‘Red-breasted Nuthatch – Holkham!!’ I nearly peeed myself in the telephone box after  hearing the news. 

A quick bit of parental persuading sent us heading in that direction. About an hour and a half later we were trotting down Lady Anne’s Drive with the dismal news that it hadn’t been seen for nearly two hours but no sooner had we arrived at its usual spot than it reappeared, albeit badly in a tree top where only the reddy brown underparts were glimpsed along with the dark through the eye.  The usual tense wait followed before it was refound.

Eventually after several better views, he came right out in the open on the top of a pine affording superb views for maybe five minutes. Everyone was ecstatic with clapping, cheering and laughing – such curious behaviour for a twitch.

The Nuthatch itself was a beautiful little bird. Nice sooty black cap, very long prominent supercillium, black eyestripe, grey bill, blue-grey back, darker flight feathers. Very short tail – blue-grey with black then white edges, white throat becoming buffier on the upperbreast then orangey especially on the belly and flanks then rich, bright reddy chestnut on the vent and undertail. The high piping call was not unlike – as the books say – a toy trumpet. It was a small bird, being only a fraction bigger than a Blue Tit. It was associating with a tit and warbler flock which also included a Yellow-browed Warbler.

Red-breasted Nuthatch was predicted yonks ago and I am glad they were right – what a cute little bird!

I have this image in with my photos and can't for the life of me remember if I took it that day or not - it is suitably bad enough to be one of mine but I suspect I am not crediting someone else so please do let me know!

We dawdled back towards the car enjoying  telling all the new arrivals tat he was still showing well. Back at the car we had lunch and watched a flock of 58 beautiful Egyptian Geese, hundreds of Canadas and Greylags and six White-fronts. Cley was to be our next stop and we spent the next few hours Seawatching where in between squalls we saw five Sandwich Terns, adult Little Gull, two Little Auks, 15 Guillemots, Red-throated Diver, three Long-tailed Ducks and many Kittiwakes and Gannets. Not bad I thought! Meanwhile ‘George’ the adult Glaucous Gull patrolled the beach and on one occasion came within two feet of us. What an evil looking bird. This wonderful day was rounded up nicely by seeing a Tawny owl at Fakenham as it passed ten feet over our heads.

Postscript: I returned four times after that fateful first day before last seeing it on the 18th March 1990.  I never missed it once and seemed to be able to pick it up on call as it quietly foraged with its chosen tit flock. Others with me were not so lucky and I am pretty sure one of them never connected at all. Will there be another one? Who knows but after 30 years it would certainly draw a crowd.

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