Saturday, 28 September 2013

All quiet on the eastern front

With Shetland seemingly drowning under a flood of rare birds and strong easterly winds down here it seemed reasonable to expect something interesting to turn up in Norfolk. Multiple mega-alerts for distant Brown Shrikes was starting to get somewhat annoying. There was however the small problem of bright sunshine and clear blue skies, excellent migrating conditions. Two walks around my patch during the day in the hope of a Yellow-browed Warbler or two turned out to be very quiet indeed. Things looked a little hopeful when a small party of about 6 Redwings dropped out of the sky into our wood but that was it as far as migrants were concerned. A singing Chiffchaff made it feel quite spring-like whilst the Swallow babies left the nest today adding a summery touch.

There are still good numbers of swallows about, unusually for very late September.
The scrape had a Green Sandpiper which seems to have taken up residence as my husband saw it yesterday too and I flushed a single Snipe from the muddy edge of another of our dykes.
Insects provided the most interest with a plum tree attracting the best showing of Comma butterflies of the whole year. The Commas are feeding on the sugary juices of the last few plums on the tree, a far preferable insect to the numerous wasps that largely devastated the crop a few weeks ago.

I also found a Large Red Underwing moth roosting on the side of the girls' now emptied inflatable swimming pool. Evolution has clearly equipped the moth with the instinct to roost on something upright assuming that upright things are usually trees against which it will be perfectly camouflaged. It hadn't anticipated the modern world and colourful plastics.

In my hunt for a patch tick I went through a roosting flock of gulls on a recently ploughed field near the house. There surely had to be a Med Gull amongst all the Black-headeds as we are only about 8 miles as the gull flies from the Med Gull mecca of Great Yarmouth? Sadly the short answer was no. They clearly prefer eating chips on the sea-front to grovelling around after worms in a muddy field.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The scrape is finished

The piece-de-resistance arrived yesterday in the form of the all important pipe. Here it is installed in all it's glory! The cow looks really impressed.

The dyke level has been raised and water is flowing  on to the scrape nearly filling it already.

The plan over winter is to raise the water level further so it floods over on to the grass margins and hopefully attract snipe, lapwing and redshank in the spring. Today there were no birds at all but there were numerous pairs of Common and/or Ruddy Darters ovipositing in the water and Southern Hawkers hawking over the surface. We need some invertebrate life to hold any birds that should find us so the more insects that find it the better.
This one is a Ruddy Darter

Youngest daughter took the dog for a walk and returned cradling this Migrant Hawker which she had found sitting in the road. Unfortunately it has a deformed wing and is sadly doomed but it is still a handsome beast

Our Swallow family is doing well despite the worryingly cold, damp spell we had recently. The 3 youngsters look close to fledging and were being fed very regularly today. The Indian summer forecast bodes well for their future. This evening a flock of nearly 50 Swallows and House Martins were wheeling over the house and marshes presumably a locally roosting flock.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Lesser Grey Shrike at Leiston

Yesterday I thought my luck had turned. At last a mega-alert for a bird I needed on the mainland in the shape of a Brown Shrike in Hampshire! There was a snag however as I had to work on Saturday morning until midday at the earliest if I was lucky. To see the bird would require a 4 hour drive so it would be a race against time to get to before dusk. I asked around at work to see if anyone else was available to swap with but everyone was either on holiday, going on holiday or visiting family. I've never thrown a sickie for a bird and anyway, when it comes to Saturday morning surgery, you would have to be on your death bed to get out of it. I once did a Saturday feeling utterly rubbish with flu and a temperature of 104F,and not surprisingly the clients got a rubbish service, but I/they had no choice. It was with a heavy heart that I went into work at 8 o'clock this morning but as the morning wore on and there was no news it was rapidly becoming clear the bird had gone. Eventually the dreaded "no sign" message came through at 9.51 and though disappointed I could relax a little. Ironically I finished work dead on time for once at 12 o'clock.
As some consolation this did give me time to go and see the Lesser Grey Shrike at Leiston after a leisurely lunch although this wasn't even a Suffolk tick. There was plenty of space to park by Halfway Cottages and crossing the road we followed the track down which other birders had come to end up underneath the pylons that lead from Sizewell nuclear power station. The area looked to be perfect shrike habitat, open horse paddocks with numerous bushes and fence posts for a shrike to perch on and hawk insects. We were quickly on to the bird and followed it as it moved from one bush to another, coming close enough for a record shot

It was feeding very actively, making frequent forays to the ground and returning to its perch with various hapless large insects which on occasion appeared to be Lesser Stag Beetles. It was a bird well worth seeing. After having our fill of the shrike we moved on to nearby Minsmere to enjoy the sight of multiple Great White Egrets (singles are more usual), although I suspect this will become a steadily more frequent occurrence.
We only saw two of the three birds at Island Mere (with a Little Egret giving an excellent size comparison) but there was also a very showy (if distant) bittern that remained on view for almost the entire time we were in the hide so it was a worthwhile, if brief, visit. The scrape was very quiet.
So my quest for a tick in 2013 continues. Will my duck be broken soon? Watch this space.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wilson's Phalarope and scrape progress

Yesterday was mad at work again. After spending upwards of 10 hours in theatre removing lumps, spaying cats, taking biopsies and putting a shattered leg back together, as I left work last night at 7.45pm, I decided I was definitely going to get a proper half day today and definitely going to go and see something. My pick of the available local birds was the Wilson's Phalarope, partly because it is years since I've seen one (1990 to be precise) and also because I enjoy phalaropes.
Mid-morning it looked like it was going to be the Lesser Grey Shrike at Leiston instead after the Phalarope had been reported to fly off but by noon the Phalarope was back and at 12.45 I shot out the door at work and headed north-west to Cley.
The Phalarope was on show on Pat's Pool in front of Bishop Hide when I arrived, almost the closest wader, feeding actively in the company of a Ruff or two. To me phalaropes have a certain poise and elegance about them that many other waders lack. Their enigmatic appearances also adds to their attraction as you can never be sure of seeing a phalarope in any given year. The rarity status of Wilson's Phalarope make in particularly special.
Whilst admiring the Wilson's , the whistling of Wigeon, the piping of Teal and the chilly, grey overcast conditions had a very wintry feel especially with the arrival of about 50 Pink-footed Geese. Summer is over it seems.
Moving on I called in at Walsey Hills to see the Red-backed Shrike there. It was feeding around a clump of ivy in the hedge that ran alongside the path. Presumably the dense ivy was the best place to find insects in the cold. It's been a good year for Red-backed Shrikes, this being my third so far.
With the arrival of rain I turned for home to check out the progress on our scrape before darkness fell. The piles of earth have finally been flattened, so from mountains :

We now have what looks like a ploughed field:

The rooks seemed to appreciate it at least. It will be intriguing to see what germinates from a long buried seed bank next spring although I suspect it will be mostly rush and coarse sedge.
The water control pipe still hasn't been installed unfortunately as the contractors are still waiting for the bend for one end to be delivered, however we can now start to raise the water level in the dyke to get some water on to the scrape.
A Little Egret was a pleasant surprise feeding along the muddy edge of the dyke behind the scrape. They were regular on our neighbours rushy pools before they dried out so it's good to have one on our land.
Meanwhile our swallows are feeding chicks. They could do with the return of some warmer weather if they're going to survive..
On an almost complete change of subject but with a birding connection, I took a few sheep to a Rare Breed Sale at Melton Mowbray at the weekend. One of my rams sold in the auction to a buyer who introduced himself to me afterwards. I asked him where he was from, he told me Lakenheath and it turns out he is the grazier for the RSPB reserve there. Should you go to Lakenheath and spot a Southdown ram, it'll be my Baby Nutter so called because he takes after his sire Nutter who was christened for his penchant for repeatedly ramming you. Fortunately Baby Nutter does it much more gently than his dad should you ever find yourself in his field. He does have a posher pedigree name by the way but somehow the name Baby Nutter stuck.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The mountains move

It's been quiet on the scrape marsh for the last 2 days. We still had the digger but the driver was away on another job. However at the weekend we put another board into the sluice on the main dyke surrounding our marshes to get some water on to the mini-scrape. After work on Monday as dusk approached I wandered out to check on progress. The water had flowed in a little more but as I approached the scrape a small brown bird perched upright on a clod of earth next to the scrape caught my eye. Lifting my bins this proved to be a Wheatear, another scarce migrant out here and species 120 for my Patchwork Challenge list. It flitted on to the mud of the new scrape after insects so it looks like the bare earth may have played its part in attracting it to visit. On the walk home, a Hobby flew over in the gathering gloom.
After leaving the board in for 3 days, the knock-on effect of raising the level in the main dyke was to raise the water in the internal dykes so water has started to flood down the current connecting channel on to the main scrape particularly the smaller southern pool.

Happily the digger was back at work today but the disturbance meant there were no birds. It has started on the big task of spreading the spoil. The method seems to be to move the piles steadily across the marsh leaving a little behind as they go, so the heaps are creeping ever further from the scrape. We're starting to get an idea of how it will eventually look. However fearful that too much water increases the risk of the digger getting stuck, we have removed the board from the sluice and unfortunately the water level will drop again. It looks like the last thing to be done will be the installation of the water control pipe which will allow us to maintain the water level on the scrape and get it flooded to its full capacity (and probably beyond).

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Digging finished

The digger driver was back this morning, despite it being Saturday, to get the basic digging finished. By lunchtime the scrape had reached its full extent but there's still much to do before we can let the water on.
There's this lot to shift for starters:

And that's only half of it. It's amazing how much spoil comes out of a fairly shallow depression in the ground. The place is going to look like a war-zone once its spread around, but I suppose it will mean more mud for birds to poke about in especially once we get some winter rain and the marsh lives up to its name.
There's also the water control pipe to go in although its a very simple affair of a length of Osma drain pipe with a bend at the end which you just turn up or down to get water on or off the scrape.
Despite only having a trickle of water, when I went to chat to the digger driver this morning, a Ruff appeared from behind his digger and circled round over the scrape. It's a very long time since we've seen a Ruff on the marshes out here but it was clearly attracted by the mud and glint of water so I hope this is an omen of things to come.
Other birds of note today were 2 Swifts with a passage of House Martins, Peregrine and Yellow Wagtail. The Swallow is still sitting.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Steady progress

I didn't get home from work until dusk yesterday so it wasn't until late this afternoon that I could inspect progress.
Yesterday was spent finishing off the dyke re-profiling and scattering the spoil. Natural England had suggested the best way to do this was with a muck-spreader which does work very well producing a thin even layer across the marsh surface which won't damage the existing flora.

There are just two problems; first it takes an awfully long time to load and then spread 8 tons of earth at a time, second it needs a hefty tractor to pull it and, despite the marshes being as dry as they'll ever be, it nearly got stuck a couple of times creating an unexpected extra water feature on the marsh. The driver didn't dare venture on to one of the rougher marshes we'd designated for spoil spreading deeming it too risky.
Today work started on the scrape proper and by the end of the day about 2/3 of one of the 2 main pools had been dug.

Unfortunately the muck spreader has been called away to another job so small mountains of earth are beginning to accumulate. These are about 8 feet tall and can only get bigger.

With impending rain I suspect we will end up having the digger scraping the spoil out as flat as he can and squashing it down with the digger bucket. Not ideal but earth piles don't really fit in with the local landscape.
There was also the question of what to do with the pile of scraped up cut vegetation that had been piled up at the weekend. I decided the only thing to do was try burning it. The rush, sedge and grass had dried out nicely on the surface and it caught light easily with a single match.

 However the pile also consists of a large amount of earth, some that had built up around the base of the clumps of rush and some that had been inadvertently scraped up with the vegetation (creating more mini-water features), so that after an initial satisfying rush of flame it settled down to a steady smoulder. I stayed with the 'fire' until dusk stirring areas to move the earth and get more areas burning but the pile was still substantial when I left. During that time the wind shifted from a gentle south-easterly  to easterly, round to north-easterly and then finally a light northerly, a sign of the on-coming change in the weather. I had 3 species of wader fly over, 3 Snipe, 2 Lapwing and a Golden Plover but the scrape has yet to host its first water bird although a Pied Wagtail paid a brief visit.

On a completely different note, the Swallows in our car-port have decided to try for a third brood and are currently sitting on eggs. Have they got time to rear a brood to fledging before the weather forces them south?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The digger arrives!

The scrape project has rumbled on for much of the summer. Our Natural England adviser didn't visit until the end of July and contractors were slow with their estimates. When they arrived the whole project appeared to be non-starter with the cost coming in at the equivalent of a brand new small car. Ironically, digging the scrape is the easy bit, getting rid of the spoil is what piles on the pounds. However, in the middle of last week, a much more affordable estimate came in from a local contractor. We posted an acceptance through his door at 11am on Thursday morning and 2 hours later had a call asking if they could start early this week.
Suddenly it was panic stations. The tall coarse vegetation on the marsh needed cutting short to have a better idea of the topography of the field and make it easier to mark out the areas to be scraped. Our local dairy farmer, Paul Rushmer, came up trumps and was out on Saturday morning to get that job done. We also needed to drop the water level in the dyke to make life easier for the digger by removing a board from the sluice that hadn't been moved in 18 months. My husband, having just had a hernia repair, was banned from doing this as it involved perching on the top of the sluice, removing the wedges holding the board down, digging away at the reeds that were jamming the board in place and eventually lifting the heavy hardwood board. Under his direction I managed to get this done without getting a soaking and it was very satisfying to see the water pouring through the sluice.

                                                              Location for the scrape

                                                             Dyke bordering scrape field

                                                                 Cut field and cow

The digger was due to arrive at 9.30 this morning but when I drove out of our drive at 8am I noticed a pickup parked in the entrance to our marshes. On investigation there was the digger too, waiting for someone to unlock the gates. With the gate unlocked the digger headed off across the marshes and I headed off to work.

By the time I got home from work the digger driver had finished the mini-scrape and was well through the re-profiling of 210 metres of dyke edge to create a 2 metre wide berm which will eventually  become a wide reed margin ideal for breeding warblers, Marsh Harriers and maybe wintering Bitterns and Bearded Tits (one can but hope!).

                                                      Digger at work on the mini-scrape

                                                            Completed mini-scrape

Tomorrow work starts on the scrape proper. Hopefully it will be done by the end of the week and we can get some water on ready for any passing waders to drop in.

Just in case anybody is interested in how I got on at the Aylsham Show, my shearling ram, Bentley, came first in his class and Phoebe, my ewe lamb, came second in hers, with the 2 Romney lambs also coming second in their classes. It was my most successful show of the year.