Saturday, 29 November 2014

Murmurations on the marsh

Its been a mostly grey, wet, dismal November here in East Norfolk particularly at the weekends which hasn't tempted me to travel far. Apart from a brief foray to Sea Palling for a repeat look at the Humpbacked Whale, on its last day as it turned out, I've stuck to patch birding.
As it happens the patch (otherwise known as home) hasn't been at all bad. Raptors have been especially numerous, the star birds being two ringtail Hen Harriers regularly quartering the marshes and probably roosting here too as I've seen them coming up from the reeds heading out in the mornings to hunt. The local Kestrels have clearly had a good breeding season too as 4 or 5 can be seen in one sweep of the marshes, with similar numbers of Common Buzzards, the calls of which are now a regular feature of the marsh soundscape. Sparrowhawks regularly buzz the garden and a Peregrine caught my eye one day as it flew purposefully over the house. Marsh Harriers are ubiquitous as always.
The star bird in the garden however has been Tree Sparrow. One bird appeared on the bird feeders 15 days ago and was joined by a second the following day, surprisingly with a House Sparrow another rarity in our garden. The House Sparrows visit was short-lived but the Tree Sparrows, having always previously just been brief visitors for a few hours, have stayed. They are clearly roosting in the hedge that divides our sheep paddock as their cheery chirruping is a feature of early morning trips to the chicken house.

Winter visitors have been trickling through too with the occasional Brambling and small groups of Redwing and Fieldfare too.
Today I took the dog on a long circular walk across Thurlton Marshes to the New Cut and back across Thorpe Marshes. The arable fields of Thurlton Marsh had large open pools of water across them and these were a magnet for Lapwings and Golden Plover. I counted upwards of 1000 Lapwing and 190 Golden Plover, the largest numbers I can recall seeing in the area.

On Thorpe Marshes, on a marsh next to the main A143 Haddiscoe Dam, I found my first grazing flock of Pink-footed Geese of the winter with a single White-fronted Goose.

The absolute highlight of the week however has to be the starlings. We noticed a few starlings roosting in the rushes and reeds behind Thorpe Hall a couple of weeks ago. Last weekend I reckoned there were about 3000 of them in a mini murmuration. By mid week the numbers had doubled but tonight mini had become massive. I walked out to the edge of our wood to watch the spectacle. As dusk approached thousands of starlings began to gather on the electricity wires across the marshes in dense masked ranks that bowed the wires. As they started to swirl over the reeds, more and more birds were pouring in from all directions. Last year I watched a roost of what I was told were 15000 starlings at Island Mere, Minsmere but this was way bigger and simply mesmerising. The noise from thousands of chattering starlings was incredible. After whirling around for about 10 minutes the starlings plummeted en masse in to the reeds but as darkness fell I could still hear the birds as I returned to the house.

This is just a small section of the flock. The thick black line to the right of the picture is starlings packed on the wires.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Desert Wheatears

Its been a remarkable end to the week with the discovery of not one but two Desert Wheatears, a few miles apart and a few miles from home. First up a 1st winter male on the North Denes at Lowestoft on Thursday, easily located from the Links Road car park by the small cluster of birders on the sea wall. The bird wasn't on view when I arrived as it had gone on to the beach but I was told it would pop back on to the sea wall and sure enough it did. Desert Wheatears are known to be confiding and this one was particularly so, picking at small black flies swarming on one edge of the sea wall whilst birders watched and photographed it from the other. Conditions were ideal for photography too, windless with a bright low winter sun and a blue North Sea as a back drop.

At times it would come even closer and wasn't perturbed when a springer spaniel trotted past it just a foot away.

A brief seawatch produced a distant single Little Auk powering northwards and thankfully avoiding falling victim to one of the many Great Black-backed Gulls loafing off shore.
Today, it was the turn of the female on Gorleston beach, still in Suffolk to Suffolk birders, but Norfolk to Norfolk birders and the County Council. Although sunny, a brisk wind was blowing up the beach so this bird was taking shelter against the base of the sea wall rather than feeding on top of it. Just like the Lowestoft male, this bird was extremely approachable and was unworried by the birders and general public above it.

Given that any novice with a reasonable camera could get a decent photo why then was it that certain photographers felt the need to scatter mealworms on the sunlit area of sand to tempt the bird out from its shelter in to the sunshine? The wheatear would dash out, grab a mealworm and immediately return to the sea wall and stay there for several minutes before dashing out again. Some would say that feeding the bird helps it but equally, feeding it could tempt the bird to linger in an area that is unsuitable for it. Others compare feeding for photographic purposes to feeding garden birds but there is a crucial difference. The photographer puts out mealworms for the purpose of changing the behaviour of the bird in order to get a better photo, the bird may (or may not) benefit as a secondary consequence but once he's got his photo he drives away and abandons the bird. The garden bird feeder puts out food for the primary reason that it benefits the birds visiting the garden, the feeder getting the secondary consequential pleasure of seeing birds closer, and the garden feeder will continue to feed the birds day in, day out providing a dependable food source. The bottom line is that we have no idea what the consequences are of providing food to a displaced migrant and the motives of the mealworm providing photographers are essentially selfish. Who wants a photo of a wild bird with a very unwild mealworm in its beak anyway?

Back home, there's a distinctly wintery feel to the marsh. A ringtail female Hen Harrier seems to be lingering in the area and a Stonechat seems to have taken up winter residence along the reed fringed dykes. Small flocks of winter thrushes pass over daily and a swirling flock of several thousand starlings is also gracing the area. The first groups of Pink-footed Geese are also on the move up and down the valley but are yet to arrive in large numbers

Monday, 3 November 2014

Scilly 2014

Hmmmm. Scilly 2014: well, it would have been better if I had been able to post a picture of an amazing American passerine in the slot above but instead you've had to make do with a stunning view, which along with the social side in the evenings, is what always redeems even the worst of Scilly years. 2014 will probably go down in birding folklore as one of the worst years ever, at least since 1974 I've been told and when I become an old birder I'll be able to say "I was there".
It started off well enough. My flight was on time and I made the 10.15 boat to St Agnes. Arriving on the island we walked straight to Castella Down in search of the Short-toed Lark. Reaching the area my group split to search but the first bird I looked at was the Lark feeding at the back of the field with some Meadow Pipits

A report of a Tawny Pipit by the Big Pool had us rushing down to Periglis and although it turned out to be a Richards Pipit we had prolonged good views of the bird as bounced around amongst long grass and rocks. I finished my day, whilst others had retired to the Turks Head, enjoying a Barred Warbler feeding out in the open on Gugh.
The following day there was time in the morning to visit the incredibly confiding Snow Bunting on King Edwards Road on Peninnis before embarking on MV Sapphire for a mini pelagic.

We steamed out from St Marys for a couple of miles  before looping round and coming back in via the Western Rocks. Birds were a little slow, a good view of a single Balearic Shearwater was the highlight and Joe Pender manoeuvred the Sapphire within touching distance (almost) of a Purple Sandpiper on the Western Rocks. However my keenness to do a proper Scilly Pelagic next August was reduced by a distinct queasiness which developed half way through the trip. I was glad to reach dry land.
Monday, and I caught up with my first Yellow-browed Warbler, Firecrest and RBF of the trip but birding was hard with very few even common migrants. Next day was a flat calm and I took the 10.15 boat to St Martins. Part way across, a pod of Common Dolphins was spotted in the Roads, or maybe they spotted us, as they came over and put on a fantastic performance around and under the boat. Our boatman, Joe Badcock, cut the engines to allow all on board plenty of time with these inquisitive creatures.

When they seemed to lose interest, simply starting up the engines caught their attention and drew them back in. This is the first time in 30 years of visiting Scilly that I've had dolphins perform like this in the shallow waters of the Roads.
On St Martins, a Siberian-type Chiffchaff showed nicely at Little Arthur Farm, and a Firecrest and an elusive RBF were conveniently close to the re-opened Sevenstones Inn. Meanwhile, birds were pouring in to my home county of Norfolk; surely things were going to pick up birdwise on Scilly?
Unfortunately it wasn't to be, and despite covering many miles and spending many hours in the field, the hoped for rarities just didn't materialise. In fact, hardly any new birds appeared and even a single Redwing was noteworthy. It was a beautiful day on Bryher on my second Sunday (see photo above) but the highlight of the day, a Reed Bunting, said it all in terms of birds.
The arrival of Hurricane Gonzalo prompted great expectations but Scilly missed out.
A Green-winged Teal on Tresco caused some excitement as it was a Scilly tick for many, but as the pager Mega-alerted repeatedly on Thursday 23rd, it was only an Ortolan Bunting, found by a team of BTO birders on St Agnes, that prompted the first extra boat of my 2 weeks. As mainland birders enjoyed a Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Porthgwarra just 30 miles away, two more American birds appeared on the Friday in the shape of a pair of American Wigeon, not quite what we had hoped for, and a White-rumped Sandpiper also put in a brief appearance on Tresco. Returning on the 2.15 boat to St Marys, Chris and I put in a few hours birding on St Marys. Admittedly we saw very few birds but also very few birders. Maybe that is the problem, too much cover and too few birders actually out looking. At least that increases the chances of actually finding your own birds!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Eastern Crowned Warbler at Brotton

News of an Eastern Crowned Warbler in Cleveland came as a great surprise to me. I had been on Scilly when the Trow Quarry bird turned up in 2009 and I had it in my mind that this was a bird I wouldn't catch up on, although a trapped bird in Hertfordshire 2 years later should have given me some hope. There were 2 problems; one, I wasn't free until Saturday and two, my husband Chris was still on Scilly and wouldn't be home until late Saturday. The Trow Quarry bird had only stayed 3 days and had gone by the Sunday, and as I would be gutted if I missed this one, I took the decision, much to his dismay, to go on Saturday.
Hence I found myself hitting the road shortly after 4am and tackling the dreaded A17 across Lincolnshire. Happily, at this time of day the A17 was pretty much clear apart from the odd lorry and tractor which were easy to overtake and I was pulling in for a short break at Wetherby services on the A1 for a quick break at 7.15. Five minutes later I received a text from a friend, James Walsh, on site to say the warbler was still there so it was a case of quickly slurping down my coffee and hitting the road again. Reaching Hunley I parked in the overflow car park kindly provided by the Golf Club. I had passed lots of parked cars but not seen a single birder so I made a quick call to James to find out where to go. He kindly met me on the road and updated me with the birds movements. It had been elusive, going missing for up to 25 minutes at a time and giving poor views in the tops of the tress. I prepared myself for a patient wait but walking in to the plantation it was obvious from the purposeful movement in one direction of birders in the wood that the warbler must have been located again. I followed, the crowd paused briefly, then moved on again around the back of a dense clump in the middle of the wood. Several birders were looking intently in the same direction, I joined them, spotted a movement, lifted my bins and there was the Eastern Crowned Warbler, just above eye level in the top of a young oak tree. It was side on to start with, then it turned to face me and dipped its head down almost as if to show off its central crown stripe before flitting back in to the thicket. I walked back around the clump and the warbler had been found again this time in a heavily leafed sycamore. Only a few birders could see it but I joined the group and scanned the tree. Almost immediately I found the bird neatly framed in a small gap in the leaves back on to me. It stayed in the same spot for what seemed like minutes during which time it turned to face me then turned back around once again. Well satisfied with my views James and I went to the Clubhouse for a reviving and celebratory cup of tea, enjoying the fantastic view from the veranda.h

Suitably refreshed, I returned to the wood and again birders were moving in determined fashion, the warbler had returned to what seemed to be its favoured location. Looking up, the warbler was almost above me displaying its lemon yellow undertail coverts contrasting with its silvery white belly. Then it moved out completely in to the open lit by a warm autumn sun. I thought I already had good views but these views were simply breathtaking. Its all pale lower mandible glowed almost orange and the bill had an almost upturned appearance like a minature Nuthatch. The broad Arctic Warbler like supercilium was further highlighted by a prominent dark eyestripe below and a dark smoky green crown with its pale central crown stripe above. The mantle and wings were a deep olive green, the feathers of the wing being fringed narrowly fresh green. This was a stunning bird!
It was time to head for home as the livestock needed checking before dark. Even the A17 despite 10 miles stuck behind 2 massive tractors, and the 20 miles stuck behind a tanker doing 40mph didn't seem so bad after all.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Cornish Choughs

I have a soft spot for Choughs. They were a bird I knew about, long before I took up birding properly, from childhood holidays in Cornwall, where the Cornish Chough featured prominently on the counties coat of arms and various tourist memorabilia. It wasn't until my first holiday without my parents, taken post A-levels, when I visited Bardsey off the end of the Lleyn peninsula that I saw my first Choughs in the flesh. Four further very enjoyable visits followed over the next 3 years, as voluntary warden and also lambing assistant for the Bardsey farmer. Cavorting Choughs were a daily facet of island life and their distinctive call (and the nocturnal cries of Manx Shearwaters) will forever remind me of some very happy times.
Work and relationships ended my visits to Bardsey and I rarely had cause to visit the distant extremities of the UK where Choughs reside other than a trip to South Stack in 2003 for the Black Lark. It was fantastic news when Choughs returned to breed in Cornwall on the Lizard in 2002 and they have steadily increased and spread so there are now 7 pairs breeding. Annual visits to Scilly in autumn meant that Choughs were in reach again but with 2 children in tow and a 460 mile drive ahead of us we always headed straight for home from St Just airport. This year I returned from Scilly on my own and unlike last year, with nothing to rush away for, I decided this was the year to reacquaint myself with Choughs. Happily, I had been told that Nanquidno valley next to St Just airport was a good site for them, so this year I turned left out of the car park instead of right and made the short journey down the road to the turning for Nanquidno. I had been to Nanquidno once before but at first had no recollection of my visit. Then turning a corner I came to a spot where trees arched over the road next to a house hidden amongst more trees. The sight was instantly familiar even though it had been 27 years since I had stood there and seen a stunning Parula Warbler. The Parula had obviously made quite an impact on my brain! I drove on a little further and came across a small group of birders intensely watching a group of bushes. It turned out they were looking for a Red-breasted Flycatcher but having seen 7 already this autumn my mind was still focused on Choughs. A local helpfully told me the path to take and I headed for the coast.
The path wound down the valley lined with bushes but after crossing some stepping stones I came to a stile where the land opened out in to some rushy grassland with the coastal grassland and cliffs ahead. A Raven flew low past me and then 3 distinctive glossy black birds came over the brow of the hill and landed on the short cropped turf 100 yards ahead of me. With their long curved bright red bills and red, colour-ring bedecked legs I had found (or rather they had found me) my first Cornish Choughs. I watched them for several minutes as they probed the turf, until disturbed by coastal walkers they lifted into the air and flew off further down the valley towards the sea. Although I had just spent 2 weeks on Scilly these were the bird of the trip, and gave me a bigger kick than even the dainty Lesser Yellowlegs at Hayle which I called in to see as I passed through on my way home.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Minsmere Little Crake

It was all kicking off in East Anglia this weekend. For me this meant spending all yesterday watching Dereham Otters Iceni swimming gala in which my youngest daughter was competing. She achieved  a personal best in all 4 events she took part in and did a qualifying time for next years Suffolk County championships so I was a proud parent. Unfortunately her total time in the water was 4 minutes in an 8 hour day and as I slowly died from boredom watching the umpteenth heat of the girls 200m Breaststroke ("It looks like a Sunday leisure swim" commented a parent next to me) my mind couldn't help but wander to the birds on offer in Norfolk and Suffolk.
It was only this morning with the girls safely on the school bus that my husband, Chris, and I could go to Minsmere. We arrived at Bittern Hide at 9.20 having been assured by Steve Piotrowski that the Little Crake had been showing well (thanks Steve!). Unfortunately the crake had wandered off in to the reeds at 8.55 and thus began a long and increasingly chilly vigil as the wind picked up and showers started to arrive blowing straight in to the hide. The pool was utterly birdless, not even a Moorhen graced its margins let alone a Little Crake. At least decent flight views of Bitterns provided some relief. The sudden change from summer to autumn had caught me out in my choice of birding garb and after 4 hours facing the teeth of the wind I was beginning to shiver. With conditions deteriorating further and the reedbed whipped in to a frenzy by the wind, Chris and I called it a day and headed home.
There was no mention of the crake for the rest of the day but knowing that crakes can be crepuscular I decided late to give the crake another go at dusk. I was more appropriately dressed this time with extra layers and arrived back at the hide at 5.50pm to find a small group of birders huddled against the back wall away from the rain-soaked windows. There was still no sign of the crake and the light, which was appalling, was getting rapidly worse. Despite this, there was an improvement on the morning with a party of Gadwall on the crakes pool and a Moorhen, wow! At 6.10pm one of the group gave up and left the hide. Minutes later, Lee Evans cried that he'd got it out in the open. Then I experienced one of those moments that in the panic to see the bird you overlook it, in this case because the light was so bad at this stage that the Little Crake really wasn't that obvious until it turned its pale underside towards me and my eyes finally locked on to it. Having gone missing for 9 hours the decidedly little Little Crake performed in full view for 10 minutes, apparently unconcerned by the weather, before disappearing back in to the reeds. At this point the hide emptied and a dozen relieved birders trudged back to their cars through the gloom under the trees.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Autumn arrives and the Red-backed Shrike Lowestoft

After the excitement of the Masked Shrike, migration seems to have slowed down at least locally, and the marshes have started to take on an autumnal feel. The chattering of swallows has gone and been replaced by the sip sip of Meadow Pipits and chirrups of passage Skylarks.
Snipe are almost permanent visitors of the scrape and wetter parts of the marsh but I was delighted to find a Jack Snipe which flushed from my feet at the edge of our scrape, flying languidly just a short distance to drop in to a reed margin, unlike the panicky escape of its larger cousin.
A Whinchat on the 1st October was another surprise find, which popped up out of nowhere on to a gate post as we were leading 3 stubborn rams on halters to new pastures.
Yesterday, I was watching Buzzards soaring over the marshes when I was attracted by a rustle in the reeds next to me. I expected to see a mammal emerge but was surprised when a Reed Warbler appeared in full view, a late record for here.
Today a single Swallow was battling southwards against the rising winds.

The confiding Red-backed Shrike at Ness Point, Lowestoft has been attracting admirers for the last week, and yesterday my husband and I paid it a visit too. It was indeed very approachable. Having made its home in bushes either side of a staff entrance to the Birds Eye complex, it was unconcerned by the comings and goings of humans, and for once there were no problems at all if photographers wanted to get close. After enjoying the Shrike for half an hour I turned my attention to the sea. Conditions were not promising for a seawatch  but there was a steady passage of small groups of Brent Geese, the occasional Red-throated Diver and then a Bonxie heading south, a precursor perhaps of the remarkable 123 counted flying past Ness Point this morning.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Migrants and Masked Shrike

This last week started very slowly but steadily built to a stunning climax. Despite birds starting to arrive in East Anglia, Monday and Tuesday were a dead loss as work kept me from any birding at all. Free time arrived on Wednesday afternoon, so thinking there had to be something to find, I tried Corton a few miles away on the coast, a known migrant hot-spot. Sadly, it was decidedly cold, bird and weather-wise with a chill, grey murk hanging over land and sea. Migrants were distinctly thin on the ground, the only highlight being a flyover calling Tree Pipit.
Come Thursday, birds were pouring in to the north coast of the county but my few free hours were assigned to sorting out some sheep with the help of my husband. A flock of 6 Buzzards circling low over our wood, mewing loudly provided a welcome diversion as did a couple of Hobbies, an adult followed by a begging youngster. Having driven the ewe flock back out on to the marsh, there was at least time for a quick spin round. Walking along a reed-fringed dyke, a chat popped up in front of us. Stonechat said my husband Chris, as I called Whinchat. It turned out the 4 bird theory was in play and we were both right, with 2 Whinchats and 2 Stonechats flicking  across the top of the reeds heading rapidly eastwards. It was hard to keep up with them but they eventually settled distantly using a dense reed margin and electricity wires as vantage points. Stonechats regularly winter on the marshes, but Whinchats are scarce visitors here so its always a pleasure to see one.
I was working Saturday morning so news of a Masked Shrike at Spurn had to be temporarily ignored but after lunch we drove north to join the "crowds" at Burnham Overy. We had missed the peak of the flood of migrants that had passed through here and the crowds of birders were actually quite small by the time we arrived at 2.30pm. Arriving at the bushes at the end of the boardwalk, we quickly caught up with 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers, and then walked east in to the dunes looking to see what else we could find. There were virtually no other birders here. Chris quickly located a third Red-breasted Flycatcher which obliging flew and promptly landed in full view in a bare bush right in front of me. We managed to find a few Garden Warblers, Redstart and Wheatears and were about to head westwards again when we noticed a solitary birder staring intently into a single bush with his camera poised. Chris remarked that he had been there for at least 20 minutes so we wandered nonchalantly over to investigate. It turned out the birder had been watching this particular bush for an hour and a half trying to get decent views of a Barred Warbler which was lurking within, apparently feeding on fallen berries on the ground. As we were about to join him in his vigil a large greyish warbler with whitish outer tail rocketed out of the bush in to a much denser and larger clump. Our quest for the Barred Warbler had seemingly suddenly got a lot harder. I took up station on one side, where there was a gap through to the middle of the clump, Chris on the other. Within minutes I spotted movement and the Barred Warbler skulked through the back of the gap but was out of view by the time Chris got round to me. He returned to his spot, I stayed at mine and again the Barred Warbler appeared and again Chris missed it. When this happened for a third time, this time with the Barred Warbler in full, glorious view, we swapped sides. Ironically, I had a brief glimpse on my (new) side but Chris quickly got decent views before the Barred warbler flipped out of the clump.
Sunday saw us getting up early and heading north again but this time on the long tedious drive up the A17 to Spurn. The Masked Shrike was in view distantly from the Well Field car park as we arrived, making me appreciate again the benefits of a zoom on a decent scope. It was clear there were many other migrants in the area and walking down the road to the sea wall we spent some time scanning a hedgerow. Birds just kept popping out one after the other including another RBF, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Redstart, Garden Warblers, Common and Lesser Whitethroats and Tree Sparrows.
Returning down the road we discovered a viewing area for the Shrike had been opened up. From here we had phenomenal close views as the Shrike worked its way up and back down the hedgerow towards us, a delightful bird, its long black white-edged tail recalling an overgrown Long-tailed Tit. I was able to try out my new phone-scoping adaptor with pleasing results.

I would have liked to spend longer in the area but having abandoned our children at home (although of an age to be legally abandoned) we left in the early afternoon to get home at a reasonable time. It was still a very satisfying half days birding and an excellent end to the week.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Willow Emerald Damselfly at last

5 years ago, the Willow Emerald Damselfly was found breeding in Suffolk and quickly appeared in East Norfolk in particular at Strumpshaw just a few miles up the Yare valley from us. Our alder wood surrounded by dykes appeared to be the ideal habitat for them but despite diligent searching by my husband Willow Emeralds appeared to have forsaken us, apart from a possible sighting last year.
Yesterday, I arrived home from work to find a photo of a Willow Emerald open on our PC. My husband had obviously finally succeeded in his quest but as he had taken our daughter to swim training followed by a club committee meeting I was left in the dark as to where he had found it.
This afternoon, after a long stressful morning at work I managed to make it home for a very late lunch with just enough time for my husband to show me where he had photographed his Willow Emerald. There was a short but anxious wait before, with a light tap of the overhanging Alder branches, a Willow Emerald made a brief flight before rapidly alighting back on an Alder leaf.

Unlike most damselflies, which seem to barely sit still, Willow Emeralds seem particularly attached to their perching places and if disturbed quickly settle back down and allow a close approach. In just a brief search, we managed to find another 2 males in just a short stretch of alders

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Wrynecks, Whinchats and a Tufted Duck

My home patch has been frustratingly quiet. With reports of many migrants on the coast, particularly Whinchats, I've set off on a circuit of the marshes hoping each time to see some sign of autumn migration. Last year we had Whinchat and Wheatear; this year, so far, precisely nothing. There've even been 6 Whinchats just up the valley at Claxton for heaven's sake, surely one could have stopped here!
My efforts to see Wryneck had also been failing. My first attempt was at Yarmouth Cemetery about 10 days ago. I arrived in the mid-afternoon to be told it had flown in to a bush and had not been seen again. Despite much searching by me and another birder, we failed to locate it but at least I found myself a dapper Pied Flycatcher, my first of the autumn, so the visit was not in vain.
My birding activities the following weekend were restricted to a 4 hour window on Saturday afternoon due to work and sporting commitments (my daughter doing the sporting bit in Letchworth, me being the taxi) so my husband and I elected to visit Winterton hoping for Wryneck and Greenish Warbler. Arriving just north of the totem pole we found one birder staring at a dense clump of bushes. Sure enough, the Wryneck had been showing well on the short Winterton turf but had flown into a bush and disappeared. Despite searching hard for 45 minutes, there was no sign of the Wryneck, or of any other birds for that matter, so with limited time we gave up and turned southwards hoping the Greenish Warbler would be more obliging.
The warbler had been quite elusive at times and a small crowd of birders was gathered by the "Valley" waiting for it to reappear. Fortunately we had timed it right and didn't have long to wait as I noticed a small bird flick into the back of a willow and then pop out in the open on the front of the tree. It performed beautifully, flitting back and forth from the willow to a huge buddleia, constantly flicking its wings.
Sunday was spent with my daughter at Letchworths annual Duck'n'Dash, nothing to do with birds, but an aquathlon ie a biathlon composed of a 600m swim followed by a 6km run. My daughter was competing as the swimmer in a relay team, the other half of which  was my friend and fellow birder James Walsh doing the running bit. Considering that they were essentially a Junior + Veteran team, they came a very creditable close 3rd against Adult+Adult teams.
During this week, I had time for an hour or so's birding back at Great Yarmouth Cemetery. Whinchats were posing here using gravestones for lookouts, another Pied Flycatcher hunted insects above them and I was pleased to catch up with a classically tail-quivering Redstart.
Yesterday, I was tied up yet again, this time for a wedding but finally managed to get out to Kessingland this afternoon where 2 Werynecks had been reported.
This time, I arrived to find a group of birders watching a Wryneck feeding distantly at the base of a bracken covered ridge. I could see where the bird was through bins but this was definitely a scope job at this range and in the short time it took me to put my scope up, the bird had been flushed by dog walkers and I was just in time to glimpse the Wryneck through my scope as it shot over the ridge into the bracken. The other birders left and I moved forward to a better position but it was an anxious wait before the Wryneck popped back into view on the grass. Focusing my scope on this bird I was stunned to see another Wryneck drop in next to it. I had two Wrynecks side by side in one scope view, simply breathtaking! One Wryneck quickly hopped off out of view but the other was very showy. After walking to Beach Farm and back, where I saw one each of Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, one of the Wrynecks was perched in full view on a bramble patch on my return.
This evening back at home, a final walk around the marshes at last gave me a patch year tick for September, not a hoped for Whinchat but a Tufted Duck, a bird I haven't seen here for 14 years! Even on a small regularly watched patch, birds can always surprise you.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Red-backed Shrike and Passenger Pigeons

Our marshes have been pretty quiet lately with no new birds for Patchwork Challenge for several weeks but a Goldcrest in a flock of half a dozen Chiffchaffs broke Augusts duck at last. Two Lesser Whitethroats yesterday and a couple of Whitethroats in the garden before today's rain suggested some warbler movement too but that's been about it for migrants.
The nearby Hobbies added to the local raptor success story with at least two very vocal youngsters fledging on Friday. Bizarrely, one flew past the house calling loudly after dark last night.
Yesterday, my husband and I braved the holiday traffic around Great Yarmouth and drove up the coast to Winterton after the showy male Red-backed Shrike that has over-summered there. I've visited Winterton many times but never got as far as the landmark concrete blocks so this was a first for me. I also hadn't realised quite how far they were from the car-park but the long walk was well worth it with the shrike performing beautifully.

It was hunting very actively and successfully, catching insects almost every time it sallied from its perches on various bramble patches. Flies, bees and butterflies were swallowed whole, and it only paused to remove the wings and legs from a darter before swallowing its body in one gulp too. The shrike was the perfect subject for my husband to try out his new digiscoping adaptor, one of the results of which is above.
Following reports of a Barred Warbler at Eccles we headed further in to deepest East Norfolk along narrow single track lanes to where a long ribbon of residential caravans and ramshackle wooden chalets nestled in the lee of the coastal dunes. Just a few birders were stationed by an enormous wide dense bramble patch. There had been no definite sign of the Barred Warbler since its initial sighting and we were not to be lucky but the brambles were a haven for several Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Common Whitethroat and a Garden Warbler.
Today's heavy rain made the prospect of birding unappealing so instead I spent my afternoon at the Wonder Of Birds exhibition at Norwich Museum. I'm in the middle of reading Mark Avery's new book "A Message from Martha" about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, and one of the first exhibits my eyes fell on was a stuffed Passenger Pigeon. Its colours were inevitably faded only hinting at the rich purple and red of its plumage in life which with its long pointed tail must have made it a beautiful looking bird. The sheer size of the now disappeared flocks described in the book are hard (if not impossible) to comprehend but we have surely lost one of the greatest wildlife spectacles of recent history. The Red-backed Shrike is a bird that became extinct as a British breeding bird in my birding lifetime but at least we can still enjoy it as a passage migrant and it has recently returned as an occasional breeder. Maybe it will one day return full time.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Return to Morden Bog

Summer holidays and at last a week off work. However this was not a week for birding, rather it was a family week. With nothing booked, I took my daughters to visit my brother in Dorset who rather conveniently lives in an idyllic cottage next to a watercress farm in a pretty valley not far from the coast. Grey Wagtails greeted us as we arrived.
The following morning neither daughter seemed overly keen on leaving the comfort of their beds, they are teenage after all, so I passed a pleasant morning around the house and garden. A Buzzard mewed from a telegraph post in the neighbours garden and the anxious chatter of the local Swallows signalled the arrival of a Hobby rocketing across the front lawn. Flocks of Goldfinches and Linnets frequently dropped in to drink and bathe in the clear waters of the watercress beds but the biggest surprise was the shrill call of a smart Tree Pipit which dropped by to join them.
With the day wearing on I managed, with great effort, to drag the girls out of the house for fresh air and some exercise and took them to the nearby Morden Bog, the scene of my first twitch of  2014. Despite her earlier reluctance, younger daughter suddenly took a great interest in grasshoppers although birds were strictly off limits as far as she was concerned. I had given her my camera to keep her interested and one of her grasshoppers perched obligingly on her finger for her to photograph it. I've yet to identify it.

She disappeared down the path in pursuit of other insect prey and came back to announce she had photographed a blue dragonfly. Checking her photos revealed a fine Keeled Skimmer, a species I have yet to see, but the sun promptly went behind a cloud and there was no sign of any dragonflies after that.

The bog was much quieter than at the start of June, hardly surprising in the middle of the afternoon towards the end of August but I managed to find 2 Dartford Warblers, 2 Stonechats and a Wheatear. The heath bore no sign of the trampling presence of the hundreds of birders just 12 weeks previously.
Today I stuck strictly to non-birding stuff and despite taking the girls to Weymouth, didn't visit either Lodmoor or Radipole, although I managed to spot a Med Gull as I drove over the bridge next to the latter. At Maiden Castle, a spectacular iron age hill fort near Dorchester, I left my bins in the car yet again but proving that once a birder always a birder, veered from our planned route around the ramparts in pursuit of the large cronking corvid that flew over, and located that east anglian rarity, a Raven, next to a small group of Crows, its great bulk obvious even to my non-birding brother. For a family trip I feel I've done rather well on the bird front and the girls seem happy with their trip too. Result!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Summer marsh round-up

Its been a quietish summer on the marshes here but the warm weather seems to have suited the local birds. We located 2 broods of Marsh Harriers for wing-tagging for the Hawk and Owl trust project and although we were sure there was a third brood out there somewhere, much searching by the ringer came to nothing. Seven chicks were wing-tagged (PP,PR,PS,PT,PV,PX and NV) in the nests we found but the first to take to the air were untagged, confirming our suspicions.

 At least 9 young Marsh Harriers fledged isn't bad at all. An outbreak of myxomatosis in the local rabbit population probably helped keep the chicks well fed as there were a lot of sick bunnies sitting out in the open this summer, easy prey for hunting birds. The local Kestrels fledged at least 2 broods of chicks too, and the Sparrowhawks nesting in our wood presumably fledged recently too with less than expert fliers appearing above the trees in the last few days. Hobbies have probably bred very locally too as they've been very noisy in a particular group of trees and regularly mobbing Buzzards that fly over this area. Its likely the Buzzards were nesting in the same group of trees and also had to put up with being harried by the Marsh Harriers when they came across the marshes. The Hobbies have been putting in regular appearances over the garden lately probably in pursuit of young swallows which seem to be heading south following the edge of the valley where our house sits.
Strange squeaky noises coming from our wood proved to be young Tawny Owls when I tracked down their source one night, and Barn Owls have been busy quartering the marshes for voles which have then been carried off in two different directions suggesting 2 nests somewhere in the vicinity. I've yet to see any youngsters though.
Our scrape has had a small, slow trickle of waders through in July, mostly Green Sandpipers. It started to dry out so we put some more water on, only for us to be deluged with rain filling it to the brim just as wader passage reached its peak locally. We've finally got mud again which has attracted in small numbers of Snipe, and 3 Greenshanks dropped by earlier this week. Ruff, Grey Plover and Little Ringed Plover have also been fly by visitors over the last 2 months. The scrapes themselves have been colonised by a variety of water plants, most notably Frogbit, and presumably small fish as they seem popular with Grey Herons and Little Egrets. It will be interesting to see how the new foot drains develop over the next year.

Monday, 4 August 2014

White-rumped Sandpiper at Hickling

Saturday was a busy day at home. I had 7 sheep to prepare for yesterdays Wayland Show but managed to get them done in time to nip out for the evening to Rush Hill scrape at Hickling. We arrived by the church and were told by 2 leaving birders that the White-rumped Sandpiper had been very elusive as it was feeding on the near edge of the scrape under the bank, and "not with the Dunlin". Undaunted we walked to the scrape and a birder there pointed out the area of banking behind which the White-rump was lurking. The bird refused to show so I took to scanning the scrape for other waders between scans along the bank edge. Wader passage on the East coast seems to have been particularly good this year and there was an excellent selection of waders on the scrape including a Wood Sandpiper, Green and Common Sands, several Little Ringed Plover and Ruff. There was also a small flock of Dunlin at the back of the scrape which was slowly increasing in number. After 45 minutes with no sign of the White-rumped Sandpiper I scanned through the Dunlin again and noticed a smaller, longer, greyer bird with a whitish supercilium. Although distant this was clearly the bird we were after and we watched it for 15 minutes as it fed actively on the mud.
Today I nipped out at lunchtime to Breydon Water for half an hour. The tide was rising pushing waders towards their roost at the eastern end. There was a dense flock of several hundred Avocet and another of several hundred Black-tailed Godwits, but the highlight was a summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper plus several Spotted Redshanks, Greenshank, Whimbrel and 2 Golden Plover.
By the way, the Wayland Show went well with 2nds for my ram, shearling ewe and ewe lamb against stiff competition. That's it for my show season this year but preparations for 2015 start next weekend when the rams finally get to do some work

Friday, 1 August 2014

More marsh work

Our scrape proved to be a successful hit with Lapwings and Redshanks with both species fledging chicks. In the winter, the RSPB Berney Marshes warden had visited and recommended we put in more foot drains, not to drain the marsh, but to increase the area of wet feeding habitat that wader chicks need.
Today was the day the RSPB came back this time with a tractor and Dutch ditching device to dig those drains. It took just a couple of hours. The ditcher does a superb job of cutting the drain and scattering the soil in a thin uniform layer to the side of the new ditch.

It wasn't even necessary to move the livestock out of the fields although the Jersey heifers did get a little over-excited. Each side was cut separately and water started flowing in as each drain was connected to a dyke.

At the end of the work we had 5 new shallow water-filled drains. The edges should soon grass over and hopefully attract more pairs of Lapwings next year. This evening when I walked round the marshes to survey the work a Lapwing (the first on the marsh since our family left) was already inspecting one of the drains.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

What a week! Great Knot and more

Summer had been rather quiet bird-wise and weekends taken up with activities other than birds. Last weekend was no exception, first the Tendring Show on Saturday (we, well my ram, got a First), then my daughters swimming club barbecue (in the poouring rain) on Sunday.
On Monday morning I was woken by my mobile phone alarm at 6.50am as usual. I opened the single mobile Tweet I had received and stared at it with bleary but startled eyes. The message from @Yarmouthbirder read "What appears to be a summer-plumaged Great Knot from Breydon South Wall, but distant". My first thought went back to the previous report of Great Knot at Breydon some years ago but as my sleepy brain whirred in to gear it reasoned @Yarmouthbirder is an excellent birder and he wouldn't be putting out a message like that unless he was pretty sure of the ID. Rapidly getting up to full speed my only problem now was that I was supposed to be at work at 8.30 but with the pager mega-alerting the news, I found myself managing to get ready for work, feed the pigs, sheep and chickens in record time and leave the house a good 15 minutes earlier than normal. I drove past work, turned up the A12 and found myself in the ASDA car-park at 8.15. Just a short walk past suited but smiling birders themselves heading for work I found myself looking down Dick Filbys scope at a superb Great Knot feeding in the water with 2 summer plumaged Red Knot, a nice juxtaposition. If I had left there and then I would have got to work at my normal time but a bird of this quality and rarity deserved a little more attention, and I watched it for another half hour as it gave more than acceptable views. The thick black streaks almost coalescing on its breast gave a first impression of a Turnstone, the mantle too was very dark, contrasting with the very bleached scapulars lacking the rufous colouration of a full summer bird. It occasionally flew short distances within the small area it was feeding showing off its pale rump and long wings. Eventually it flew to the hide tide roost and disappeared into the sea lavender. It was time for work!
I returned for a second look in the evening but this time it was a much longer walk along the south shore and the Great Knot was feeding distantly on the mud on the opposite side of the estuary. At least it gave me a chance to appreciate its attenuated structure and the dark breast and mantle were still discernable.
Tuesday arrived and with it, news of a Collared Pratincole at Minsmere. Its been a while since I've seen a pratincole of any sort in the UK so come mid-afternoon I found myself in the East Hide at Minsmere watching a rather coy Collared Pratincole that seemed to spend much of its time tucked away in a hollow on the edge of the long bund that runs away from East Hide. It revealed itself at times, did the occasional fly around to reveal its chestnut underwings and white trailing edge and just a few times sat out in the open. The scrape also had an excellent selection of waders including a Wood Sandpiper, one of my favourite waders, Spotted Redshanks and Greenshanks, and also a flock of Little Gulls including some very smart adults.
Wednesday was a day off birding but come Thursday and with the Black-winged Pratincole still at Stiffkey Fen, I made the journey to the north coast for my second pratincole of the week. As I walked up the path towards the sea wall I was fortunate to find 2 birders watching the Pratincole in flight and picked it out as it flew above a large flock of Lapwings. When it landed out of sight I walked up to the sea wall, where birders were gathered, to find the pratincole had landed and hidden itself amongst tall vegetation. For the next hour it played a game of now you (can just) see me, now you can't before eventually giving itself up and standing out in the open and giving another flying performance.
I thought the week couldn't get any better but it did when news broke of a family of Black-winged Stilts in the south of Suffolk. I've seen lots of Stilts in the UK but this was something special, so this time hit the A11 to Cavenham to enjoy the rare sight of juvenile plumaged Stilts. As an added bonus 4 Stone-curlews were in sight on the heath. The week had been a veritable waderfest!
The final twist was a Quail calling so close to the road you could hear the slight clearing its throat croak it made before giving the classic 'wet-your-lips' call. Sadly like all the other Quail I've heard the bird was invisible in the wheat and steadily made its way to the back of the field. Quail remains off my British list. Maybe one day.......

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Marsh round-up

It's been a while since I posted about comings and goings on the marshes. The past 6 weeks have seen much activity. One of the highlights has been the successful fledging of 2 Lapwing chicks last week and 2 Redshank chicks today. Our original 6 Lapwing chicks were whittled down to 2, almost certainly by a Stoat which my husband saw in the vicinity of one brood as the parents desperately dive-bombed it. We were never sure how many Redshank chicks we had as they were mostly invisible in the grass, their presence only revealed by the anxious calling of their parents as we passed by. I only ever saw one, most notably when I let the cows on to the marsh for the first time. The excited heifers did several laps of the marsh before charging on to the muddy margin of the scrape where, to my horror, I spotted a chick running as fast as it could in front of 56 rapidly closing cow hooves. Somehow it managed to dodge the feet including those of one cow that stopped to sniff it, and today it, and a previously hidden sibling, took their first flights from the scrape.
The first Hobby arrived back on the 29th April and have been seen almost daily since. For a few days a pair were using a telegraph post positioned at the head of 4 dykes on the marsh as a convenient vantage point to sally forth and grab newly emerging (probably Hairy) dragonflies. Fortunately for the Norfolk Hawkers which have just started appearing from the same dykes, the Hobbies seem to have changed their hunting behaviour.
Last year, I only heard Cuckoo on 3 occasions. This year, after their arrival on 27th April, I've heard them almost daily and there was still one calling this evening. Others have reported more Cuckoo activity this year and that's definitely the case here.
Much to my relief, our Turtle Doves reappeared on 25th May. The males soft purring gave me a lovely background soundtrack as I prepared sheep for the Suffolk Show over the Bank Holiday weekend and he was still going strong today. Yesterday I saw another locally at the Hillfield plant nursery and PYO so we seem to be in a good area for them. The Marsh Harriers are doing well too. It's almost impossible to scan the marshes without seeing one as they're now busy feeding chicks.
Other highlights have included a Black-tailed Godwit on our scrape, although soon driven off by the Lapwings doing a very good avocet-like act, and any time out in the garden is regularly enlivened by a strident peep as a Kingfisher announces it dashing presence along the dyke at the bottom of the garden. We have a family of Water Voles here too, who seem to be very tame and will munch unconcernedly on Water Soldiers while you watch

Flowers are starting to put on a show too with vibrant yellow flag iris in various places

The Common Spotted Orchids are appearing too both on the marsh and in our orchard

And the warm weather has brought out an increasing variety of dragonflies in addition to those mentioned above with Variable and Azure Damselflies, Four-spot Chaser and Black-tailed Skimmer.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Dorset Dawn Magic - the Morden Bog Short-toed Eagle

The last few weeks have been very busy, work, sheep, garden and home all conspiring to reduce blogging time to zero although managed to lever some birding time in somehow. At last, this weekend looked free for a relaxing time and a possible pootle up to the North coast for a look for the Black-headed Bunting. Things changed on Saturday morning when the pager mega-alerted with a Short-toed Eagle sitting in a tree in Dorset. My first reaction was "pale-buzzard". On seeing the photos my second reaction was unprintable, however the eagle had flown and I expected that like most raptors of that ilk it would vanish or just be seen flying over the occasional place every now and then. I relaxed and got on with the task of helping locate Marsh Harrier nests for an RSPB project.
Come the afternoon the eagle was reported once more and then it was found again sat in a tree at its original site. Sunday in Dorset was now beckoning but as the eagle continued to sit in its tree on and on into the evening it became increasingly obvious that Dorset at dawn was the place and time to be.
Rather conveniently, the eagle had chosen to turn up just 3 miles from my brothers house. Inconveniently, it turned out that my brother had gone away for the weekend so the option of a few hours in a comfy bed was sadly unavailable. So it was I found myself pulling up in a layby in Dorset where 4 other cars were already parked at 1.50am  hoping I was in the right layby (you can't be too careful these days). As all appeared well I removed my contact lenses and settled down on the back seat hoping to get a couple of hours sleep. My hope was ill-founded as more cars arrived with increasing frequency as dawn approached. When birders started chatting outside the car I gave up, put my contact lenses back in and realised that everyone was assembling by the gate. It was 10 to 4 and barely light. Hurriedly grabbing coat, bins and scope I joined the group as they headed quietly out on to the heath. Churring Nightjars welcomed us and then a Cuckoo joined in heralding the impending arrival of dawn. As we assembled on the ridge overlooking the eagles roost site the dawn chorus was in full swing but it was only light enough to make out the shapes of bare trunks against the dark pines. As the light improved a little more someone nearby announced that they thought they had the eagle. Following his directions I picked out a brown and white shape, the brown looking indeed like the fold of a wing against a white belly. It was only when the bird lifted its white head from where it had been tucked in its back was it possible to see that this was indeed the Short-toed Eagle, to the enormous relief of the gathered crowd.
As the light improved further the views became better but then the eagle was swallowed in a shifting mist, at times completely invisible, at times a ghostly shape. It was nearly another hour before the rising sun was strong enough to burn off the mist and give us a proper look at the bird in decent light.
The eagle spent the whole time I was watching it on one small part of one branch in one tree. Occasionally sleeping, occasionally preening, and looking around sometimes right at us with piercing yellow eyes in an almost owl like face. It attracted the attention of several of the local residents, being mobbed in succession by 3 Crows, a Jay, Green and Great-spotted Woodpeckers, and a Mistle Thrush. In the gorse beneath its tree a pair of Dartford Warblers bounced about and Siskins called frequently. It was a magical site and well worth another visit when next I visit my brother.
By 7.45 I was feeling weary and headed back to my car. Here a flicking shape in the trees opposite became my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year and as I turned for home a Cuckoo flew across the road in front of me.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Return to Kessingland and more summer migrants

There was a mild sense of deja-vu when my mobile phone tweeted "Hoopoe at Kessingland NOW" as I lay in bed on Saturday morning. It was another grey morning (why at a weekend?) and rain threatened but a Hoopoe is always worth seeing. This time my husband came, and we also dragged my daughters out persuading them that the dog would enjoy the walk. Rallying the troops took some time as my 13 year old daughter is a typical teenager and rather partial to her bed at weekends so we didn't manage to set off until the rain had begun to fall.
Reaching Kessingland my daughters and dog headed off for the sea, leaving my husband and I to plod south along the beach into a fine drizzle driven by a brisk, chill southerly wind. I noticed a father and young son birding team walking off the dunes but it was my husband who spotted when they waved at us. Hurrying over to them they pointed out the Hoopoe feeding just in front of the shingle ridge in the middle of the beach. This exotic visitor from sunnier climes looked a little out of place in this bare, open somewhat dismal location and it rapidly took off and with flopping flight headed for the dunes. We caught up with it again as it fed along the path on top of the dunes but it was soon off again on to the slightly more bushy area where I saw the Ring Ouzels last week and then on again into bushes on the south side of the river.
We moved on to Beach Farm in hope of the Wryneck passing several Wheatears including some splendidly plumaged males. The Wryneck had disappeared with the onset of the rain and stayed stubbornly out of view whilst we were there. The bushes in the vicinity seemed alive with Whitethroats however. Walking back to the car, a Lesser Whitethroat gave a few blasts of its staccato song but refused to show too.
Today was a far more pleasant day with warm sunshine. I toyed with the idea of heading for the coast again but decided to stay home and bird the marshes instead. A morning stroll round the marshes was rewarded with confirmation that we had 2 broods of Lapwing chicks, with 2 sets of three chicks feeding around the edge of the scrape. Nearer the house my first Holly Blue butterfly of the year posed on an ivy and Orange Tips seemed abundant.

I stayed outside to have lunch on the patio enjoying watching the activities of the local Marsh Harriers. A House Martin cruised overhead, my first of the year, but even better came the sound of a Cuckoo across the marshes, much earlier than last year. A Peregrine dashed across the marshes too. I also noticed two largish dragonflies on the marsh, too distant to identify, but likely to be Hairy Dragonflies.
This evenings highlights were 2 Short-eared Owls, Green Sandpiper, and  a Curlew which became my third patch year-tick of the day. After a Garden Warbler in the garden during the week this brought my  Patchwork species total to 99 for the year. Can I crack 100 in the 3 remaining days of April?

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Lapwing success

It was a red letter day today. Walking round the marsh this evening I noticed one of the Lapwings sitting rather awkwardly on the edge of the scrape with very fluffed out breast feathers. After a few minutes she stood up and, much to my delight, revealed 4 fluffy recently hatched chicks, a first for our marshes. Now all they have to do is dodge the crows, Herring Gulls and Marsh Harriers but at least the Harriers won't be feeding chicks for a while yet.
Other new arrivals are Sedge Warblers which are in full song and a new Green Sandpiper yesterday. I was also treated to the spectacular sight of 2 Short-eared Owls mobbing a Marsh Harrier, and a Water Vole paddling determinedly along a dyke was the first I've seen for a while.

This lunchtime I had a reasonable length lunch hour which gave me time to get away from the surgery with its endless interruptions to my lunch and nip out to Burgh Castle. The tide was just right with warm sunshine, giving me a very enjoyable and relaxing 45 minutes birding with 2 Greenshank, 2 Spotted Redshanks and a flock of 26 Whimbrel flying by being the highlights. There was a sizeable flock of Black-tailed Godwits, and singing Reed Warblers were a year tick too. When I get the chance I should escape here more often!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Dotterel and Ring Ouzel, Kessingland

It was another grey day in east Norfolk today and, with a wind whipping in off the North Sea, rather a chilly one too. A bright spot was news of a Dotterel at Kessingland Beach so with all quiet on the marshes I trundled over there this afternoon. The Dotterel was easily found in the vast expanse of shingle by looking for the small group of birders huddled against the wind. The massed ranks of dog walkers were thankfully sticking to the landward side of the beach leaving the Dotterel undisturbed in the middle.
Whilst I was there it spent all its time sat down on the shingle resting, only occasionally opening its eye for a quick look around. Without the other birders already there, it would have been very difficult to find!

With the Dotterel seemingly glued to the one spot, I walked over the dunes towards the sluice in search of the Ring Ouzels that were there. I quickly saw two including a superb spring male feeding with Starlings by one of the many paths that crossed the rough ground. The birds were very skittish, not helped by frequent disturbance from Sunday walkers using the area, flying back and forth from the line of bushes inland across to the rough brambly areas just inside the dunes and only occasionally lingering on the short grassy areas. However they were still easy to see unlike many other Ring Ouzels I've looked for in the past. I saw at least 3 birds in total, male and female and also some smart spring Wheatears, my first of the year.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

New Arrivals

Spring has moved on apace as far as the local plants are concerned . Blackthorn blossom has rapidly given way to the wild damson blossom which in turn is handing on the baton to the start of the hawthorn blossom. My apple and cherry trees are just starting to bloom too and the Bird Cherry in our wildlife garden is smothered in flowers.

The Cowslips too are a mass of nodding buttery yellow across the grass there too

Out on the marsh the Cuckoo Flowers are appearing, white from a distance but a subtle mauve close up.

 These flowers are so named as they are supposed to herald the arrival of the Cuckoo but summer migrants have still been slow to appear. The sudden chill edge to the now northerly wind probably hasn't helped. There was a sudden flurry of activity on Thursday with some brief showers seemingly pushing small numbers of hirundines ahead of them. Two Sand Martins passed by along with double figures of Swallows and my first Yellow Wagtail of the year lifted off from the edge of the scrape. A flock of 10 Feral Pigeons flew through too, my first of the year on the patch! Today a single Whitethroat was singing in a bush along the road. Meanwhile, up to 3 Short-eared Owls, birds I associate more with winter have been quartering the marshes in the early evening but one Swallow is waving the flag for summer, singing each morning on the wires near his usual nest site.
Our Lapwings suddenly became even more aggressive in the latter part of the week, chasing off even their erstwhile ally the Oystercatcher so I wonder if they may have finally hatched off some chicks. The female in that area is no longer sitting but the grass is too long to see if there might be chicks so it will be a case of waiting and seeing. Another bird is still sitting tight.
We also welcomed two new additions to the farm, this years batch of pigs, although just two this time. Christened Piddle and Puddle by my younger daughter, they are Oxford Sandy and Blacks crossed with a Welsh boar, hence the ginger tones

Our final lamb of the year arrived on Tuesday easing the work load. Most of our ewes and lambs are now out on the marshes, the lambs enjoying the opportunity on warm evenings to stretch their legs in manic races across the fields, always an entertaining sight.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

White-tailed Eagle at Lynford and Going Ape in the forest

If you read yesterdays blog you will be aware that family commitments kept me from Flamborough and the Crag Martin. However Go Ape is in the middle of Thetford Forest and close to several excellent birding sites and I couldn't see why we shouldn't combine a bit of birding with our visit, much to my two daughters disgust. Lynford Arboretum was our chosen destination and on our arrival several Common Crossbills and the contentious two-barred bird were present (of which there is an excellent discussion here). Typically, there were 2 photographers standing close by the drinking pool, way in front of the assembled birders, right out in the open.
We had a wander down to the horse paddocks seeing Yellowhammer, Nuthatch and Grey Wagtail before returning to the visitor hut hoping for more crossbills. Suddenly my husband said "There's a large raptor coming overhead". Looking up to the northeast I picked up the bird straight away. I see Buzzards and Marsh Harriers all the time at home and this was clearly neither, the bird was massive with huge broad wings, slightly wedged tail and a relatively long neck. This could only be a White-tailed Eagle especially when its huge size was confirmed as it was mobbed by a seemingly diminutive Buzzard. We manged to alert about 4 other birders and watched it for 5 minutes or so as it circled slowly just to one side of the sun before it drifted off to the south west.
Coincidentally a White-tailed Eagle had been reported 3 miles from our house this morning, it must have been following us!
Time was up and my husband dropped me and the girls off at Go Ape (paying £2.10 for the privilege of driving in and out of the car park) before he headed off to Santon Downham. I have to admit that Go Ape is actually worth the cost with my youngest daughter having an "awesome" time. My eldest daughter had to be virtually prised from a tree to make the first crossing but soon conquered her fear of heights and was climbing rope ladders, balancing precariously across shaky walkways and hurling herself down massive zip wires. Only at the very end when we were in the very highest trees on some of the scariest runs did her nerves return and she started clinging to the trees again. I'm not too keen on heights either but ended up taking the difficult route and doing the ultimate 'Tarzan Swing' a hair-raising initial plummet earthwards before the ropes catch you and swing you in to a large net strung high between two trees. I'm sure I heard Firecrests calling along the route but was never able to see one.
My husband meanwhile had  excellent views of a drumming Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at Santon Downham and at least 200 Brambling before having to pay another £2.10 to pick us up but a great day was had by all..

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Slow start to spring

This April has been a complete contrast to April 2013. Last year, we were blasted with interminable, cold north-easterly winds that put the final nail in the coffin for our local Barn owls and held up the new spring growth for weeks. Today, everywhere is washed with fresh spring green, blossom is smothering everything and cowslips and marsh marigolds are in full bloom. Puzzlingly, our summer migrants don't seem to be keeping pace with spring. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps have arrived and are singing from the undergrowth but the skies remained stubbornly silent until today when the first twittering of our returning Swallows was at last heard over the garden.
Our local resident summer visitors, by which I mean Shoveler, Coot, Little Grebe and Gadwall, have turned up at least. A pair of Shoveler seem to have taken up residence on our scrape where at least 2 pairs of Lapwing appear to be sitting on eggs. The Oystercatchers and Redshank still remain too, the Oystercatchers being particularly useful and vocal in assisting the Lapwings to chase off any crows that wander over. Its interesting to see they make a distinction between the numerous rooks, now busily flying back and forth feeding their young, which are ignored and the crows, which clearly regarded as a threat and rapidly seen off
Bird of the week was a Grasshopper Warbler that gave a few brief bursts of song from a nettle and scrub covered bank as I walked back from checking the sheep one morning. This was just a few yards from where we had a Gropper previously 3 years ago in almost identical circumstances on a very similar date. Two Short-eared Owls have also returned to the marshes after appearing briefly earlier in the winter.
Feeling otherwise short changed on migrants, I headed to Minsmere on Thursday afternoon where things got off to a good start with swirling Sand Martins at their nest bank in the old car park. Another summer migrant, Willow Warbler, was singing in the North Bushes. I then considered myself fortunate to see a Cettis Warbler singing in full view for once rather than lurking invisibly in the bottom of a bush. The scrape was covered in hundreds of Black-headed Gulls, from which I managed to pick out at least 5 Med Gulls in various plumages, but apart from Avocets and Lapwings, there were few other waders apart from one Ruff and a Barwit. Moving on to Island Mere a very obliging Jack Snipe was bobbing amongst the emergent reeds to the right of the hide.

Bitterns were in full voice and one eventually gave a brief view flying across the reeds. I also heard a short snatch of Sedge Warbler song
As early evening approached and the heat haze dissipated, I headed back to the North Wall and scanned the field behind the visitor centre and quickly found a now active Stone-Curlew in their usual Minsmere site.

Yesterday, my plans for a day out with my daughters were disrupted by a mega alerting pager, a Crag Martin at Flamborough! With news a little vague at first, I finally set off at 11am on the long trip to Flamborough. First decision was whether to take the much longer thrash along a dual carriageway route or the shorter but appallingly tedious plod along the A17. Guided by my sat-nav I took the latter but after 3 1/2 hours of following lorries and news on the Crag Martin having turned decidedly negative I stopped for lunch in a Tesco car park at Brigg and after a chat with a friend on site turned back for home. Frustratingly, the Crag Martin reappeared this afternoon, but having promised faithfully on Friday that I would take the girls out tomorrow I shall be swinging through the trees at Go Ape in Thetford  rather than retracing my steps up the A17.

Bird of the day today was a Green Sandpiper, a first for the scrape, and there were 4 of the aforementioned Swallows including 2 on the wires adjacent to their traditional nest site in our car port. A House Sparrow paid a visit to the garden for the first time in a couple of months and my husband had a Yellow Wagtail on the scrape too. Spring seems to be moving at last.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Dusky Warbler at Oulton Marshes

At last I had time today to make the short trip in to Lowestoft to look for the Dusky Warbler. We started lambing again 9 days ago so I spent last weekend hovering around the lambing field. Typically hardly anything lambed but I did at least catch up on various jobs around the garden and was in the right place when a Kingfisher rocketed up the dyke at the end of the garden, a Patchwork Challenge year tick.
It was quiet again in the lambing field this morning and younger daughter wanted me out of the way to prepare a Mothers Day surprise giving me the perfect excuse for a visit to the Dusky.
 I arrived on site at noon to find the bird hadn't been seen for 3 hours or so, when it had last been seen in a line of scrubby willows that stretched 100 yards or so back from the path. There was a small group of 4 other birders looking and after half an hour or so we heard it tacking softly somewhere in front of us. It was an hour before it was finally spotted creeping around in a tangle of willow branches and sedge low to the ground but the views were distant and into the sun. Moving closer down an obvious well worn path to a fence line, the by now just 3 remaining birders quickly got much better views of the Dusky as it reappeared in the same area and moved up higher in to the willows before flitting even closer in to an isolated bush and then on to bushes lining the main path. It was calling frequently making it easy to locate. Here I had another brief though excellent view of it as it came towards me right by the side of the path. It quickly flew in to the reed bed on the opposite side to where it had come from and disappeared.
Walking back along Fisher Row, Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies were out in force and a familiar song revealed my first Blackcap of the year.
Back home, the ewes were sunbathing and I was banned from the kitchen by younger daughter for a further half hour. Judging by the dusting of icing sugar on the work surface, the unwashed cake tins and the recipe for butter icing open on the computer screen it looks like I'm getting a cake tomorrow.
Out on the marshes here, we still have 3 pairs of Lapwing, one pair of Redshank and a pair of Oystercatchers and the Marsh harriers, 3 pairs at least, have been displaying.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New bird for the scrape

Spring and the lovely spring-like weather continues apace and today it was time to retrieve last years lambs, now known as shearlings if they're Southdowns, tugs if they're Romneys or hoggets if they go to market, from their wintering quarters. First job was to worm and move the 2 rams, Colin and Bradley, from the marsh they were on, an easy task which also gave time to have a good look at our scrape. The Lapwings were still in residence and still displaying. They've been joined by 3 Oystercatchers and now 2 Redshanks feeding along the muddy edge, all annual summering visitors to the area. Dropping the water level has really brought the scrape to life and we are privileged to have the ringing sounds of  wader calls as a background to work outdoors.
Getting the shearlings out to their allotted marsh was a harder task as they were more keen on renewing acquaintance with 3 other young sheep I had brought in at the start of February for shearing in preparation for the summer shows. Eventually they reached their destination and it was time for another look at the scrape. A Snipe had joined the Redshanks and then I noticed a small wader, a Dunlin, wow! OK, so its only one Dunlin, hardly something to get excited about most would say, but it was the first since the neighbours once arable fields flooded one winter many years ago and it also suggests the scrape is attractive to passing migrant waders. Spring passage could be interesting I hope.
Later this afternoon, Fieldfares and Redwings were moving along the valley edge and this evening more new birds, a pair of Shoveler, were feeding on the scrape. Birds seem to be on the move.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Patchwork surge

My Patchwork Challenge has been somewhat lacklustre this year. February was terribly slow with just 4 new birds added and I didn't expect a lot from March. Forced to stay home on Sunday due to my role as Mummy taxi for my elder daughter and German exchange student gave me plenty of time for some Patchworking. The weather was gorgeous, clear blue sky and warmth enough for just shirt sleeves. The garden had burst in to life with Small Tortoiseshell and Brimstone butterflies, and newly emerged bumblebees re-stocking on nectar on the Red Dead-nettle flowers in the vegetable garden. Marsh Harriers were doing their looping display flight and on the scrape marsh, the Lapwings were still fending off potential nest predators and the first Patchwork tick of March appeared as a noisy Oystercatcher flew in.
Encouraged, I headed off with the dog for a Sunday stroll down the road to the northern limit of the patch. Here a rustle in the dry leaves at the edge of the path alerted me to a Grass Snake slithering away, disturbed from its sun-bathing. I can't recall seeing one so early before. Emerging from a line of trees by the marsh, two more Oystercatchers started alarming and I glanced up to see a harrier coming in to view. Except this wasn't the usual ubiquitous Marsh Harrier, the different profile, the barring on the underside of the wings and the white rump made this a Hen Harrier, my first for the year. I had been thinking I wasn't going to catch up with one of these birds on patch this year. My return towards home also produced 2 Chiffchaffs in the same bush.
Today was my half day, so after doing some long overdue weeding in the vegetable garden (but leaving those Dead-nettles) I headed off around the marsh. Another patch year tick came in the dowdy shape of a returning Coot in its usual dyke. I took a diversion on to the neighbours rushy marsh in the hope of a Water Pipit but almost immediately flushed a Jack Snipe that erupted from near my feet and flopped half-heartedly across the rushes before disappearing in to the dense vegetation. The day was going well! Nearing the end of my circuit, a small group of gulls came towards me heading up the valley. A jet black hood on one caught my eye which with the blood red bill, white eyebrows and clear white wingtips revealed it to be a superb adult Med Gull. Despite the Med Gull capital,Great Yarmouth, being only 8 miles away, this was my first on the patch since 1998. Obviously we've not got enough chips (Med Gulls favourite food in east Norfolk) on the marsh. So, a great end to the day and excellent Patchbirding !

Saturday, 8 March 2014


The 1st of March is regarded as the start of the meteorological spring but others prefer to take the Spring Equinox as their starting point. I'm optimistic and  like to follow the Met Office on this. Once February has been and gone I think winter is over. If we get any snow it rarely persists, the sun is too strong and the days too long for the snow not to melt quickly. There's also the fact of the sun rising before me so I'm feeding the sheep before work in full daylight at last. This year Spring hasn't let me down and if anything has arrived early. Daffodils are bursting in to bloom, buds are swelling on the hedgerows and the rooks are busy carrying sticks to their growing nests. White blossom is already smothering the branches of the Blackthorns, there is a chorus of bird song on sunny mornings and flag irises are growing rapidly in the damp woodland. Spring is well underway.

Of course, winter often fights back. I went to Minsmere last Sunday afternoon where under a sullen grey sky, a strong cold southerly wind made the walk from North Bank down to the South Levels quite an effort. The birds too had a strong winter feel to them with hundreds of ducks including 3 Smew on the Scrape and few waders. I missed the Spoonbill that had visited earlier. The principal reason for my visit was to watch the Starling roost in the Minsmere reedbeds. Island Mere hide was standing room only but the Starlings put on a spectacular display of close formation flying, forming a whirling, rollercoaster amoeba that rolled and flashed across the reeds in the gathering gloomy dusk.

The spring and sunshine returned on Monday just in time for the working week. We dropped the water level on our scrape 2 weeks ago exposing a muddy margin. The Teal seem to prefer it this way and many have moved out of the Alder wood to dabble in the shallower water. Small parties of Lapwing have been moving through and yesterday I was delighted to see Lapwing displaying on the scrape marsh. Today 6 Lapwing were on this marsh and a low-flying Buzzard caused an instant aggressive response from one of the birds who continued his tumbling display flight for several minutes after the Buzzard had passed. The Marsh Harriers too have been showing signs of breeding behaviour. Reed Bunting numbers have been building up on the garden feeders as seems to happen each year as spring progresses, reaching a peak of 9, many in full summer plumage already. A stunning spring plumaged male Lesser Redpoll this morning was also a first for the niger seed feeder this year. Over it all, the classic soundtrack of spring and early summer here, the busy sound of the rooks in their rookery plays constantly. All we need now are some summer migrants.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

February round up

Here in east Norfolk we seem to have escaped the worst of the severe weather that has been battering the country for the last 2 months. We had average rainfall in January and although February has been wetter the rainfall maps suggest only a little bit more than average. Consequently our marshes don't have much more standing water on them than in previous winters, a far cry from the Somerset Levels and Thames flood meadows. It has been windy but, apart from the neighbours rotten fence, there has been little damage too apart from part of an old Alder which came down in the last storm.

The mild weather continues to keep the patch fairly quiet and it feels rather like March, the winter birds gone (well actually they never really got here) and the spring birds yet to arrive. I've only managed to add 3 species this month to my Patchwork Challenge year-list. A Lesser Redpoll in the garden on the 8th was the first of the winter and for the first time in 17 years I've seen wintering Chiffchaff on the patch, two birds in fact. One of the Chiffchaffs was singing in the welcome sunshine we experienced last week. The lack of sustained cold can only be good for the local Barn Owls which were completely wiped out by last winters bitter weather. We had got used to regularly seeing up to 6 Barn Owls from the house so to see none last summer was very disheartening. One lone bird eventually moved in but I was delighted to see two together hunting over the marshes with a third bird more distantly earlier in the month. I hope its a good vole year.
The rooks have returned to their rookery to roost at night but apart from the odd bird carrying the occasional stick to an old nest, they have yet to start building in earnest. Meanwhile, small flocks of Lapwings have been moving through over the last few days, some stopping om the scrape marsh. On the advice of the RSPB, we turned down the pipe on the scrape to expose a little mud as Lapwings start prospecting for nest sites about now.
With the Patchwork list moving so slowly I've ventured further afield, firstly to Titchwell to catch up with some winter ducks, where Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander, Goldeneye and Common Scoter duly obliged and also get a fix of that wonderfully evocative sound of flocking Brent Geese. Today I persuaded my elder daughter to accompany me to Covehithe where I caught up with the female Long-tailed Duck that has spent the winter there. The sea was very stormy but I managed to find 3 Red-throated Divers bobbing wildly up and down giving now you see me, now you don't views.

With winter fizzling out, it's very much roll on spring now.