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.