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.