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.