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.