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.

Casual Year Listing.

It's been a while. And I guess that does reflect a certain loss of enthusiasm, a change of tack.  Not that I haven't been out. A cou...