Saturday, 23 November 2013

Glaucous Gull, Lowestoft

November is my least favourite month. It always seems to be relentlessly grey and damp and, with the nights continuing to draw in, no promise of spring around the corner. The birds too can often be disappointing. The excitement of autumn migration has gone and many of our wintering birds have yet to arrive in any numbers. Today at least dawned bright, sunny and windless.
After taking sheep to Norwich Livestock Market and returning home with a bag of Suffolk walnuts from one of the men helping in the wash out area(!), I took a stroll around the marsh. There was nothing special, but it was pleasant enough. Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were passing overhead, 2 Marsh Harriers were calling to one another over next doors marsh and our wintering flock of about 40 Teal have returned to the alder wood. The scrape is just about to overflow its edges thanks to the previous weeks rain but the only birds making use of it this morning when I passed were 3 Common Gulls. Our other marshes are getting increasingly wet too with standing water on several.
Whilst sorting out the hay for my January lambing ewes, the distinctive wink-wink call alerted us to a flock of about 60 Pink-footed Geese heading south down the valley.
After lunch I headed to Lowestoft and found a small disconsolate group of birders by the side of the Hamilton Dock. The Glaucous Gull had not been seen since 8.30am when it had apparently been flushed by a Common Seal! The Hamilton Dock must be the most unattractive birding site in Suffolk with a security gate guarding a high concrete sea wall to your left, a noisy engineering yard behind you, Lowestoft town centre to your right featuring a multi-storey car park and the fish dock, currently in the process of being demolished ahead of you. It is always cold whatever the weather with the classic "lazy" North Sea wind cutting right through you. Despite these down sides, the dock has an excellent reputation for attracting rare gulls especially in its heyday when Lowestoft still had a fishing fleet, the most famous being the 1977 Franklin's Gull and the 2006 Ross's Gull.
After 10 minutes I moved off to Ness Point where the Purple Sandpipers were showing very well, pushed up to the railings at the point by the rising tide.

I had a look at the waste skips at the back of Birds Eye factory which were attracting some gulls but drew a blank. I headed back to the dock just in case and found Ricky Fairhead scanning the harbour. Within 5 minutes Ricky picked up the Glaucous Gull coming in from the direction of the town centre but it promptly dropped in out of view amongst the boats to our right. I had come armed with the last crust from my kitchen so within seconds we had it on the water and on the tiny tyre-strewn beach below us giving us tremendous views and an excellent photo opportunity.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Shorelarks and Parrots

I've had friends over this weekend who had certain avian and cetacean targets in their sights so I took on the duty of local guide, heading first to the metropolis of Great Yarmouth hoping to see the Shorelarks there. Great Yarmouth is not exactly my favourite place in Norfolk. Tatty and faded with garish and noisy amusement arcades along the "Golden Mile" and suffering from high levels of deprivation it hardly appeals. Having talked it down (and before the locals complain), the Time and Tide Museum is excellent and well worth a visit and hidden amongst rows of modern terraces and industrial units is a surprisingly well preserved medieval protective wall complete with towers.
The Shorelarks were reported to be on the beach north of the Britannia Pier so we parked near the Imperial Hotel, crossed the North Denes, avoiding inevitable dog mess and detritus of empty beer bottles and rubbish, and  joined sea-anglers, dog-walkers, metal detectorists and the odd meandering drunk on the shore. A family of birders were watching the Shorelarks feeding unconcernedly on the shingle amongst all this activity, only flushing if someone went particularly close to them and quickly settling down again. Shorelarks to me are an enigmatic bird coming from the Arctic tundra, wintering just in small numbers, seemingly in different places each year and never guaranteed from one year to the next so there was a curious juxtaposition of these especially wild birds in this distinctly human semi-urban environment.
Yarmouth sea-front is also an excellent place to see Mediterranean Gulls, which seemed to be the commonest gull on the beach whilst we were there.
From Yarmouth we headed northwards along the coast stopping at various points from Waxham to Happisburgh in the hope of seeing the Humpbacked Whale. The visibility was not good and our quest failed but there were a few sea-duck such as Eider and Common Scoter passing by and the odd Red-throated Diver on the sea.
My friends' other target was the Parrot Crossbills at Holt Country Park. Heading there rather late in the morning we arrived to find a gathering of slightly despondent birders and no sign of the crossbills. Luckily within 10 minutes of our arrival 4 birds flew over the car park and in to some nearby pines and eventually 10 birds revealed themselves. Looking through branches and leaves and past trunks, viewing was awkward at first but when they flew into a pine tree near the road they became much easier to see and ultimately gave excellent views. Bill size and structure varied amongst the group but some were very impressive indeed with notably bull-necks and large heads. We nipped up to Cley for lunch and I just had time to find the Black Brant and see the Pale-bellied Brents with the Dark-bellieds on the Eye Field before having to head home.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Stock take

The rams had been in with the ewes for 16 days so the time had come to change the raddle colour on the rams chests. Raddle is a heavily pigmented oily paste smeared between the rams front legs that marks each ewe as the ram goes about his work. As ewes come in to season every 17 days or so in the autumn changing the colour allows us to see which ewes are now hopefully pregnant and also tells us roughly when each ewe is due to lamb. Walking across the marsh to deal with Colin, the Romney ram, the Stock Dove flock lifted off from the neighbouring recently ploughed arable fields. From 88 the flock had grown to 110 plus, a sizeable flock in Norfolk terms if the new Norfolk Bird Report 2012 is anything to go by. Wood Pigeon numbers, in contrast, seem to have fallen considerably from last winter but that could be because there are no oil seed rape crops in the immediate area this year.
After dealing with the rams I took the dog for a walk in to a distant corner of the patch by these arable fields in the hope of a something new. It was late in the day so many birds were heading to roost but there were 9 Fieldfares feeding on the wide uncultivated margins, looking particularly splendid as they always seem to do this time of year and a flock of 50 Linnets in the fields themselves. We surprised a Chinese Water Deer which stood motionless staring at us as we approached before he sped off across the field with my Jack Russell in hot pursuit. It suddenly stopped and turned to face its pursuer and the dog, clearly confused by this abrupt change, came to a sudden stop too. This was much to my relief as I've seen the damage a buck Muntjac inflicted on a small dog and this deer had a very fine set of tusks on him too. As I turned for home a Barn Owl glided silently ahead of me along the dyke edge, a sight to savour now they have become so scarce in the area.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Humpback Whale at Waxham

At last a weekend had arrived and I was free to do some birding at last. The problem with this time of year is that most of the daylight hours are spent at work so there is barely any time to get round even our marshes let alone get to anywhere else. I had also spent 2 days on a course in Redditch during which my husband had seen 2 Med Gulls and 5 Black-tailed Godwits on the scrape, along with a Jack Snipe on two occasions and several Common Snipe. The best I had done previous to this was a flock of 12 Ruff which was at least a site record.
Opening the bedroom curtains this morning it was pleasant to see that the usual Woodpigeons normally perched on the electricity cables across the marshes had been replaced by a flock of 88 of the much daintier Stock Dove. As Stock Doves seemed to have been declining locally this was a great sight. On a follow up walk around the marsh there seemed to be plenty of birds on the move with a small flock of Fieldfare heading determinedly west, groups of Starlings milling across the marshes, a large flock of Linnets on the nearby arable fields and Skylarks calling overhead. Three Marsh Harriers seem to have taken up winter residence and a skein of Pink-footed Geese passed down the valley. The scrape was quiet and we decided to turn the pipe up to allow more water to accumulate and flood on to the grassy surrounds. I was considering an afternoon walk along Haddiscoe Island when news of the reappearance of the Humpback Whale at Sea Palling had me missing lunch and heading northwards instead. The first day of the whale had been agonising as I was at work only 11 miles from it but unable to escape. I had been condemned just to read Tweets of how fantastic it was, so I was glad to have the opportunity to catch up with it (I hoped)
I arrived at Sea Palling in murky weather. The morning's sunshine had been replaced by low cloud and intermittent rain and there was a winter chill in the air. The whale had not been seen for a while and its last showing had been brief and distant. I joined 2 other cetacean searchers in scanning the horizon. Tim Allwood turned up and explained that when he had seen the whale previously it was on show almost continuously as it fed amongst a swirl of gannets. With just a few gannets passing through things were not looking hopeful. Penny Clarke arrived and joined the watch but after 40 minutes I decided to look further south with the plan of stopping at several points down the coast so drove first to Waxham for a quick scan of the sea there. Parking at the Shangri-La track I just took my bins and walked up on to the dunes. My gaze first fell on a close-in Red-throated Diver and then, just to its left but some way behind, a black shape loomed out of the water, the Humpback Whale! I rushed back to the car, fetched my scope, texted RBA and enjoyed distant but still good views of the whale as it repeatedly surfaced and dived surrounded by its gannet entourage. Even at a distance the whale was mightily impressive and I was thrilled to see it, my first proper big whale ever. It was easy to locate, you just had to look for the gannets, wait for it to blow and then the back and dorsal fin would follow. On occasion I even saw the tail flukes flip out of the water as it dived deeper, an amazing sight.  I was joined by Penny Clarke, Duncan Mcdonald and another birder and we all continued to watch and enjoy the whale as it moved slowly north and away until it was literally on the horizon.  A Bonxie added a little extra spice to the day and small groups of Starlings were regularly picked up making their way in off the sea. All in all a very satisfying day!