Friday, October 23, 2020

Zugzwang in Norfolk

Thursday in Norfolk. It had to be done. There was the Rufous-tailed Bush Chat Scrub Robin thing, which surely any serious birdwatcher should go for, then at the other end of the North Norfolk Coast there was a sprinkling of Red-Flanked Bluetails and a Dusky Warbler. But as David and I, with Mike in Covid-secure separate car, made our way north, there was a feeling that this could all end in disaster. Rare migrants seem to have a distinctive behaviour pattern: Arrive, zoom around calling frequently all excited at their new surroundings out in the open taking it all in, slowly realise they are on their own, and quickly either leave or spend their remaining time time hiding silently in thick undergrowth. We have clearly reached that last stage with two of the three, and the third, Dusky Warbler, generally bypasses the zooming around stage and goes straight to the hiding bit.

Hence we found ourselves in a large crowd in a field at Stiffkey watching the clock and in that familiar position. Not to have come? Well, they might show and that Bush Robin thing might never appear again on British soil in our lifetimes. Stay a while and leave? Well, it might appear. Stay until it appears? Well that could be all day for nothing. We were in birding Zugzwang, which as you will all know is a Chess term for a position where it is your move and every available move makes your position much worse.

We clocked a few typical birds from the field and adjacent coastal path; lots of Pink-footed Geese and Brent Geese, a Marsh Harrier, two Red Kites, Wigeon, Little Egrets, Redwings, and some passing Chaffinches with the occasional Redpoll. We even had very distant Gannet. But we took the plunge and headed for Holme, with David adding a Cattle Egret from the car at Holkham.

Holme Beach car park, currently Bluetail central, was jam-packed so we went to the Observatory. We wandered round, getting Razorbill, Red-Throated Diver, Common Scoter and Great-Crested Grebe on the sea, a fly-by Pintail, 500 Golden Plover, a Merlin carrying prey flying past (again!) and a few Redwings, then back at the obs the Warden went to the Heligoland Trap setting the Dusky Warbler off chuck-chucking and flying around. I got 'typical' views of it darting between bushes, and Mike went one better seeing it briefly on the ground under a bush.

We left to go to the Beach Car park and on the way out Mike stopped his car and leapt out - a Ring Ouzel had been in a bush besides his car and flown into a dip. We looked over this area for a while, seeing lots of Redwings and both David and Mike had subsequent views of one or more Ouzels. just fleeting views.

We finished up at the beach car park and briefly joined a small crowd staring at Bluetail-free bushes. But we were done.

Not much for a list, but it was fun. We were prepared for disappointment, so the hunt for Ouzels was a bonus, and the essence of birding.

And that felt like the end of Autumn. List-wise, its been mixed, but experience-wise its been great. The fun of being out with good company witnessing migration on a grand scale and seeking a few exotic waifs and strays amongst it all is unbeatable. The excitement of the unexpected. We've cheered, we've kicked a few grass tussocks in frustration, we've gone 'No not that bush the next one - oh its gone' quite a lot. We've said 'at least its not raining' as its started to rain, and we've ticked a few good birds and found some decent ones

But most of all we've witnessed bird migration. the older I get, the more I go birdwatching and the more birds I see, the more amazing the whole thing seems. To look at a Rabbit or Fox and think if those arms were a bit different the creature could rise up into the air and travel huge distances - just a bonkers notion. Our ornithologist forebears thought summer visitors hibernated. Flying thousands of miles away for winter and then flying thousands of miles back, seems far less likely, but is the amazing reality. And those grubs eating the cabbages in your gardens? You won't believe what happens to them. I could tell you, but you wouldn't begin to be able to imagine it. 

Anyway, the next chapter beckons, which will probably be more local with fewer rarities. Bring it on.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Norfolk Thursday 15th

NE winds onto the Norfolk coast in mid-October. Who could ask for more? so David and I pitched up at Cley at 9:30 to join what would undoubtedly be a large number of sea watchers.

Actually there was just two other people, everyone else having gone off bush-bashing. But we were playing a long game - let everyone else find the birds and trot round letter cleaning up. Well that was the plan.

We'd missed 3 Poms but there was still stuff moving; Kittiwakes, Eiders, a few Scoters, Wigeon, Brent Geese and Auks, and a couple of Red Throated Divers on the sea. And a male Mallard. There was a shout of Peregrine? And we saw a falcon with prey going across the sky. It looked very brown for a Peregrine. It was, of course, a Merlin, but the flight with prey and the bulk of the female did throw me I must admit. That dashing hunting Merlin flight? Well, it wasn't that.

We kept going for a couple of hours, at the end of which we were the only ones there. Two Little Auks sped through mid-range, and at the end of our session a party of Scoters heading east had a bird out front with a broad white trailing wing patch; nice to get Velvet Scoter on the list. We ended with a list of probables was well: a couple of very distant skuas were large and heavy (I believe the technical term for these views is 'definite Pom'), a distant party of gulls looked like Little Gulls as they were light and buoyant with a mix of all pale wings and black W but too far to clinch the dark underwing, and a female duck whizzing through was almost certainly a Long-Tailed Duck, with that distinctive pointed-wing look, but I just couldn't clinch it. But that uncertainty is one of the joys of sea-watching. 

For some reason David was mad keen to see Cattle Egret. We stopped at North Point Pools where some had been reported but with no cattle in sight we headed on. 

Holkham was our next and final stop. We soon came across a group at a bush contains a reported Blyth's Reed Warbler. The bird showed well displaying a massive bill. Nice. We went on, stared blankly at a space where a Red-flanked Bluetail had been, and ended up at the end of the wood on the dunes where a juvenile Barred Warbler was giving very decent views. Ten Cattle Egret flew distantly past giving David his target tick.

Here we heard that the Blyths had been downgraded to plain Reed. Really? Despite the tuc-tuc call reported first thing? As we turned to head back for the car the Cattle Egrets suddenly appeared flying in formation near us, before settling in the adjacent field where they gave fantastic views, perching on a cows, back, catching frogs, whilst a Great White Egret wandered serenely around. David had got his wish fulfilled in spectacular fashion..

We retraced our steps towards Lady Anne's Drive. There were birds all over, particularly Redwings and Blackbirds. Siskins called over, and once a Brambling. Goldcrests were everywhere, so much that stopping to look at birds simply because there was a movement was a waste of time, and calls were the key. We went past the Not Blyth's, gave it another look, Christ that's a hell of a bill, then as we were discussing the lack of any Chiff-Chaffs we came across a group looking at one with some Goldcrests. A quick double-note call and yes! Yellow-Browed Warbler giving excellent view for this species.

And that was our lot. There were Pallas' Warblers at Stiffkey, but it was 4:15, there was parking, ages waiting for them to appear possibly, then the two-and-a-half hour trip back. It wasn't as though we were going to accidentally stumble across a Rufous Bush-Robin was it? So we called it a day and left for home. An excellent day in Norfolk.


Friday, October 02, 2020

World's Shortest Sea Watch. Canvey Point 2nd October

A stonking big arrow on the weather chart, pointing right up the Thames. Go to Canvey Point. Just one small issue, that '99% probability of rain.' But that's alright, it just refers to the hour, not necessarily a prediction of continuous rain.

The obvious and sensible thing to do when pulling up at the point and seeing horizontal rain shooting across a lead-grey sky, would be to head instead for the centre of the island, pay a small fee in a car park, and set up in the shelter of the old coastguards base. Only a complete fool would try and birdwatch from the Point.

So, how did I get on at the Point? Well, it was really hard. And wet. The continual battering and rapid fogging of the optics meant very little could be seen. What I did manage to see were Gannets. Lots of Gannets, battling against the wind out of the estuary. Eventually a flock took off, and sixty, yes 60, Gannets were in the air at once flying slowly East. They settled again and more came in drabs from up river. But I was fighting a losing battle at this point, and after fifteen minutes it was a battle I had comprehensively lost. 

I did drive to the sensible part of town, but I was soaking and my optics useless. I couldn't stir myself to even get out of the car.

I saw on twitter the first tweet of what is likely to be an excruciating series where two local birders relaxing in the comfort of a dry wind-free sheltered area had counted a hundred Gannets, with no doubt more to come. But unless you are really experiencing ... oh forget it. I got this wrong. There is nothing more to be said. Good luck guys in the shelter. May your optics be filled with Sabines, Leaches, and other goodies.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Building the list - Oare Marshes 11 Sep

An American Golden Plover had been around on and off, and Oare is an easy run and an always productive visit so it wasn't much of a decision.

I arrived 9:30ish to a largely muddy and bird free puddle.It was clearly going to be hard. Never mind the AGP, there were no GP and hardly anything else. High tide was around 6 am so soon the estuary side would be solid mud. Time was tight to get anything on the mud.

There was a group of birders further up, they pointed out the long staying Bonaparte's Gull just in front and mentioned they'd had two Little Stint and a Curlew Sandpiper back where I'd just come from. There were lots of Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the foreshore as well as a few Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits but I could see no other waders. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling. 

By nature I am impatient and twitchy when birding. This leads to frustration and bad decisions. Yes, I am talking about that White Rumped Sandpiper again. My birding mates always help me calm down and concentrate on the birds in front of me, but without them I was struggling.

At the corner of Faversham Creek There were about 30 Avocets and the group of birders pointed out a very distant Osprey over Shellness. Could I tick it? Well ...

Down along Faversham Creek, Getting into a more relaxed state, going through the Redshanks by the waters edge. A Ruff, then a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. Phew. I really like these birds, the long legs, scaley back and apricot wash on the neck looks so neat to my eyes.

There was quite a lot going on. Lots of Bearded Tits flying round, plenty of Meadow Pipits over, then the group of birders caught up and found two Little Stints on the East Flood. Again, that pinkish wash on the neck is just gorgeous. Really neat birds even at a distance.

Round back to the road, thirty Golden Plover flew in, sadly no AGP amongst them, a Water Rail was found by other birders on the reeds edge, then a juvenile Hobby came belting through and a Cream Crown Marsh Harrier sauntered in from the east.

Back to the car park and a juvenile Whinchat had been found on a nearby bush. A quick look over the estuary again and a commotion slightly up stream on the opposite bank - an Osprey, possibly the one from earlier, doing some fishing, then slowly drifting off west with an entourage of Crows. 

In the end a decent list. I always seem to have to go through a period of calming down, of accepting that I can't magic birds up, so I have to concentrate on looking at what's in front of me. Harder than it sounds, or should be, sometimes.


Thursday, September 03, 2020

In praise of my patch.

I rarely see other people on my patch (apart from the thoroughfare that is the riverside path). Most often the farmer, occasionally dog-walkers. But recently there was a man loitering suspiciously, binoculars in hand. We got chatting and he said he was a birder who lived in the village, came here occasionally but never saw anything so preferred to go to the local reserves.

Well, how an individual chooses to watch birds is their business and no-one else's, and everyone does it differently. But the comment about never seeing anything did trigger me. I thought about it on a patch walk recently with Mike who had come over.

We walked down the lane to the park, passing the Wasp's nest. As we entered the adjacent field 2 Nuthatches were calling to each other across the field. A female Sparrowhawk cruised along the top of the hedge causing 38 Goldfinches to rise in anger above it with 2 House Martins for company. On the brambles there were loads of wasps again many coming and going from another nest entrance, and on this occasion a Hornet was cruising along the top. Always massively impressive for an insect.

Down to the river, and a few tits flying through and on their tail a Treecreeper flew into a bush above our heads. We watched it for a couple of minutes before it flew off. A classic patch bird, I haven't seen on for a few months so as always a treat to see this wonderfully patterned bird close up. 

Up into the chat field, and sadly for us no Whinchat. there have been three records of juveniles this autumn all in the same place on the wire. I have no idea if they are the same bird, but I suspect not. 

Along with the disappearing Whinchat there were fewer flocks of Willow chiffs, last night's clear sky seeming to have cleared out a few birds, but we had Whitethroat and Chaffinch.

Over the railway line and road and round a couple of fields to the higher ground. Mike was pointing out that whereas our oaks are laden with acorns this year, there were very few Hazelnuts on the tree in front of us, when there was a bustle from the hedgerow and we managed to get a sighting of three buck Fallow Deer heading off. Round the corner and 5 Red-Legged Partridge. My first for the patch were two last year, then a pair again in spring so perhaps they have bred and we now have a colony.

No Skylarks at the moment. I had 6 a couple of weeks ago but we seem to be in a lull between breeders and winter visitors.

A pause at the top to survey. A late Swift through west, some Swallows were still at the farm, a Common Buzzard high up, and then another distant Sparrowhawk, probably a female.

Back down past the field of grain. It looks a mess with lots of blue flowers, but the farmer explained to me that it is a special mix of nine flowers selected to fix nitrogen in the soil and improve nutritional quality of the grain. Some juvenile goldfinches here and 12 Linnets on the wires show it is popular with birds too.

We stopped to inspect a small tree in the hedge bearing large hard green fruit,. We didn't recognise it but the massive leaves were a give away, and further research confirmed this as a Walnut tree. 

Back down toward the river and a large overgrown hedge that recently had 2 Spotted Flycatcher. Not today but we had a Lesser Whitethroat briefly and another Sparrowhawk, this time a blue-backed orange-flush male. Some Common Darters, Migrant Hawkers and an Emperor by the river, then a Muntjac in the usual place in the wet field, and that was it.

Nothing to bother RBA or birdguides with, but a visit that never stopped to give interest. In my opinion to get the most out of a patch you have to accept it on its own terms. Understand its limitations and enjoy whatever wildlife it has to offer. Take Linnets; on a trip to Norfolk or elsewhere these are walked past with barely a look as we search for rarer offerings, but a summer plumage male is a beautiful bird and on my patch I have the time to have a god look and enjoy its fine plumage. If instead of a common bird it was confined to Mongolia, whenever a fellow birder returned from there we would ask if they saw the Linnet, and was it as beautiful as the books show? And why don't we have birds like that in the UK? But we do have them, in number, on my local patch.

This Covid year has placed a strain on all birding, but the patch has never failed to deliver. There's always something new, something I'd not previously noticed, and always a bird sighting that makes the day.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Cley sea watch - 29 Aug

The weather chart was very promising. NW gale force winds veering N in the afternoon, a bit of rain. This coincided with a gap in my social obligations. Luck me. So, I got up when I woke up and headed the 100 miles, 2hrs 30, to Cley to arrive around 8:45 ish.

A few lines of birders, I tagged on the end got my scope up and already there were a few seabirds belting east. This was going to be epic!

Lots of birds just knocking around too. Eider on the sea, Sandwich Terns going up and down, a couple of Fulmars going west and many flocks of ducks going W, mainly Teal but a few Wigeon and some Common Scoter. Some year ticks already. Then a shout from someone and an adult Little Gull fluttering along the tide line. This was going to be Epic!

I was now properly settled in, ready to get some decent sightings, and ... and ... for the next few hours or so the only thing that moved was rain. In a horizontal on-shore direction. The encroaching rain clouds seems to have cleared everything out. There were a couple of gaps in which a distant Gannet went west, and a Bonxie did a magical trick of flying towards us from the east and moving simultaneously further away, a kind of seabird moon-walk, courtesy of the gail force wind.

Around 1pm I decided that was it. I was epically wet and wind blown. There were some shadows and flickers out there on the edge of the rain belt, but nothing I could even tie down to a genus let alone species. I learned it is one thing to spot some decent onshore winds with a few showers on a weather chart, it is another to be trying to identify birds whilst stopping your tripod from falling over in a blizzard of rain.

Anyway, that early activity. Three small skua-shaped birds went east, then another one. Long arcs of gliding. The area of the line I was in was unclear, thinking Shearwaters, maybe Manx. I am no expert, or even averagely decent sea-watcher, but they weren't Manxies. Also, my optics were better (Kowa 883), and these were soft brownish. Later I spoke with someone who said the three were two Arctic Skua and a Long-tailed Skua, one of the three being clearly smaller.

Now, I don't know. But familiarity is a key indicator, and there was not much familiar about these birds. Honestly, if someone said they were all long-tailed I'd have believed it. But deciding that those telling you something other than what you want to hear don't know what they are talking about and those who tell you exactly what you want to hear are the experts is a dangerous game of self-delusion. So they will just have to go down as Skua sp.

In summary, there was lots of action before I was there, according to Birdguides there was lots of action after I was there (more long-tailed and a Sabine's), but when I was there there was naff all. There was a time when I would have been annoyed, but these days I am at peace with the fact that I cannot be everywhere all the time, I only have certain windows of opportunity, and I see what I see. Also, who knows if I'd have seen the latter birds, or agreed with the ID.

Increasingly, its the not-knowing that's the fun, the time spent trying to work out exactly what it is that's in front of me that's the excitement. Gull-Billed Tern? Yep. Saw that Alton Water one. Nice. Tick. But zero excitement factor. Brown shape hurtling past half a mile out? Now that's interesting ...


Update. Steve Gantlett posted some great photos of a Long-tailed Skua going past Cley at 11:45. I was there during and after, and no-one mentioned it. Just shows what is going past and you don't notice. 

I was struck, again, by the contrast of the various posts on twitter with confident posts with totals stated boldly and the experience of being in with several watchers and us collectively not really having a clue on what those birds passing at some distance were.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Some Luck at Abberton - 28 Aug

Birding has been a bit lacklustre. Rainham last weekend had an Avocet and a Blackwit in the bay, then absolutely nothing on the reserve, and the first trip to Canvey of the year was alright, Peregrine, Mediterranean Gull, 2 Whimbrel, Porpoise and some typical estuary stuff, but not the magic we were hoping for. Abberton has sprung into life recently, so I gave it a go. 

Arrived at Billet's farm to the sound of thunder. Went to Wigborough bay and ... nothing. No sign of the Wood Sandpiper reported this morning. Went to Abberton Church for the Black Terns, and ... almost nothing. A Spoonbill in the lagoon was nice, 10 distant Black-Tailed Godwits, 5 Common Sandpiper, and lots of Little  Egrets.

Layer De La Haye Causeway, and a chap who had told me about the Spoonbill at the church was there. Immediately we found 2 Black Terns, mid reservoir and doing that dipping thing. It's been a while since I've seen one, and it was just great to see their distinctive somewhat stubby bodies, darkish backs and caps, short tails, and the swooping flight. So, one target down.

Back to Wigborough bay and a chap told men that the Wood Sandpiper had been at Billet's Farm screen, so , back to there and a classic bit of mud with shallow pools, really excellent with good visibility (for Abberton), and three Green Sandpipers with no sign of the woods. I waited a while, enjoying the many Yellow Wagtails, then briefly a Wheatear and a Whinchat on the last few stones of a tumble down wall. Back to the Green Sandpipeers, and slowly out of a ditch crept a juvenile Wood Sandpiper, followed by another one. It paraded around in front of a Great White Egret, one of several today.  Fantastic. Wood Sandpiper is always for me a bird that punches above its rarity value; it has an elegance about it unique amongst waders.

Just when I thought that was it, back at the car park my first (and probably last) Clouded Yellow of the year. So some nice sightings at last.