Tuesday, 9 February 2010

An East Anglian Excursion

As hinted at in my previous entry, I'd been planning a major excursion over to East Anglia for a while though the weather forecasts and a nasty cold had so far prevented me from going. My major excursions generally involve going further afield (usual staying overnight somewhere) and lining up a number of target birds that can be seen in reasonably close proximity in that area. A classic example was last year in Devon (spoonbill, cattle egret, surf scoter, cirl bunting and penduline tit). This trip all started as I'd been monitoring shore lark sightings and had seen a pair being reported at Snettisham on a regular basis. I then happened to notice that there was a good golden pheasant site not far from there (more on that later) and also that there were a pair of cranes and a rough-legged buzzard over-wintering in Cambridgeshire. I decided that all this was a sufficient number of target birds to warrant putting together a trip. Now any hardcore twitcher would just get up in the middle of the night to get to East Anglia by first light. However I find that I get too tired doing that and so instead I decided to travel over on the Sunday evening, stay in a hotel somewhere and then enjoy a full day's birding in the general area.

I'd been told that it might take somewhere between three and four hours to get over to Norfolk so in order not to arrive too late I set off at around five pm. Having planned the route carefully I had decided upon: from Oxford M40 north & A43 north to Northampton, A45 & A605 north to Peterborough then the A47 west to King's Lynn. I'd booked a hotel on the west side of the town on the ring road and conveniently close to my first birding location of the day. I found the traffic a bit busy as far as Northampton but after that it was fine and I was amazed to find that I got there in a shade under two hours and forty minutes. The hotel was functional though the radiators were so hot as to make it rather stuffy and it took a bit of time to get to sleep.

I'd decided not to bother checking the weather forecast, reasoning that if one did and tried to wait for a good day, with the weather as it was at present one would end up never going! I wanted to see the shore larks in particular before they moved location and was prepared to see them in any weather. Accordingly the next day I got up before first light to find a grey sky, a cold wind and intermittent sleet and snow falling. I was starting to wonder whether my forecast-denial was in fact a good idea after all but I had to make the best of it. My first port of call was a well-known location for golden pheasants. I have been told by a former local birder there who now birds in Oxford that this location had been so over-birded that the pheasants became very secretive and it had been very difficult to see the birds at all. He therefore asked that I kept it secret and I am respecting his wishes. Personally though, it seems a bit pointless as even I knew of this location as the one spot at which to see golden pheasants and I'd never even been birding in Norfolk until now. Anyway, I turned up at an area of woodland with plenty of dense rhododendron growth, apparently ideal for these elusive pheasants. I'd envisioned it as a quiet rural backwater but, getting there at around 7:30 just as it was getting light there seemed to be a steady steam of cars going by every few minutes. There are apparently two tactics that can be employed to see the birds: either curb crawl around peering into the undergrowth or to sit tight in a strategic location and wait for the birds to show. I chose to do a combination of the two: I sat and waited in the car until I got too cold or bored and then did a crawl around. Whilst waiting I did see a couple of squirrels, two muntjac and three roe deer all cross the road. In addition I heard and saw a number of geese flying over but not much else. I couldn't help but think that all the cars going by weren't helping at all and concluded that these must be people going to the nearby village to work on the estate there. Perhaps in hindsight coming a bit later would have been better and certainly after 9am it got quieter though with three other locations to go to my allotted time was running out. As I was leaving I met another car crawling along, clearly a fellow pheasant chaser. We had a brief chat and I'd mentioned that I'd not seen anything in an hour and a half and he said that he'd never seen the birds in twenty visits! This did make me feel a bit better about not having seen them but I couldn't help but think that he must be doing something wrong to have failed that many times! Anyway, onwards and upwards with the next stop being Snettisham.

I arrived to find just one car in the car park and I soon caught up with its occupants. With the snow falling steadily though never settling, we both agreed that we were surprised to find someone else as stupid as we were to be out in this weather. The shore larks had been seen the last couple of days right by the gate at the end of the chalet road, just where the path meets the beach so I started looking carefully as soon as I got there. There was a flock of a dozen or so finches but careful scrutiny revealed them to be linnets rather than twite. There was no sign of any larks in this key spot so I headed south towards the RSPB pools. I'm sure most people reading this will have already been to Snettisham but just in case there are any others like myself who'd not yet visited, the beach consists of a relatively narrow strip of shingle leading up to a ridge. Below the shingle is a vast array of mud at low tide, being the Ouse Washes which on the gloomy day I was there seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. The other side of the ridge were a few pools overlooked by hides. I was interested primarily in the shore larks and therefore mainly concentrated on walking along the beach. At the first hide I took a break from the wind and sleet in the hide to have a scan over the mud flats. There were plenty of birds to be seen with good numbers of shelduck, redshank and dunlin interspersed with some curlew, oystercatchers, black and bar-tailed godwits and a few grey plover. I took the opportunity to take some digiscoped record shots.

Distant videograb record shot of a grey plover...
...and a bar-tailed godwit

On the pools there were loads of greylag geese with a single pink-footed goose in amongst them and plenty of the usual ducks that one might expect. Back out on the beach I walked all the way to the end where I was rewarded with the view of a peregrine flying low across the mud and along the narrow creeks trying to surprise something. As I was walking along I met up with the twenty-dips pheasant man again who said that he's walked the whole length of the beach without seeing the shore larks at all. As I came back to the turn off to the car park I reasoned that if the southern strip of the beach had been searched by two people without success perhaps it was worth looking further north in front of the chalets though the larks had not been reported there at all. As I started off in this direction I saw a few ringed plover and turnstone all quite close in and feeding on the mud. I had walked for a relatively short time in this direction when up ahead I saw something brown and lark-shaped flitting along the shore-line and a quick look in the bins soon confirmed them to be the two shore larks. They were working their way north ahead of me so I climbed the sea wall and, keeping well back so as not to spook them, walked ahead of them and set up my digiscoping gear. They gradually got nearer and seemed quite happy for me to take shots from on the top of the wall some twenty yards or so away. Unfortunately it was snowing quite heavily by now and my scope lens was a bit blurry and my hands were shaking from the cold but despite these things and the total lack of light, the birds were close enough for some shots to come out quite well.

The Snettisham shore larks

Some video footage of one of the larks

Whilst I was looking at the larks a party of knot came quite close as well.

After a while I got too cold and started to head back to the car and as I did so the larks flew off ahead of me, back to their favourite location by the chalet gates. I was able to point them out to the couple I'd originally met on my arrival though twenty-dip man had by now gone (having dipped out on the larks too!). Back in the car I had a nice hot drink from my flask, nibbled on a sandwich and plotted my route to Cambrideshire. I'd been most pleased to have found the larks: to have dipped on both Norfolk target birds would have been rather depressing and with one success under my belt I could head off happy.

I'd lined up a couple of locations in Cambrideshire: Eldernell on the Nene Washes where a couple of cranes were over-wintering and the Coveney rough-legged buzzard. The journey there was uneventful, with some red-legged partridges in a field en route being a welcome year tick. Eldernell (park here) is somewhere that I discovered on the Cambirds news group. From the car park one has a view north over the Nene washes where wintering swans and geese can be seen. I arrived with the snow continuing to fall and visibility very poor. Unfortunately this poor visibility proved to be a realy problem at this location where one is looking out into the distance over the washes. I could make out good numbers of whoopers and Bewick's swans ahead of me and it was interesting to note the different size and jizz between the two species. Over to the east (where the cranes were usually seen) it was so gloomy that it was very hard to see anything. I did my best to peer into the dark and made out plenty of ducks, a heron and a white blob that could have been a little egret but no crane-shaped shadows could be determined.

I was starting to feel rather tired now as I headed off towards my final destination of Coveney for the rough-legged buzzard. Some road works meant that it took a little longer than expected and I arrived at the location at around 3pm. It was once again snowing/sleeting and I was thinking that any self-respecting buzzard would be holed-up somewhere sheltered but nevertheless I was going to give it my best shot though I'd been told on Cambirds that the buzzard could often prove difficult to track down so it was by no means an easy tick even at the best of times. Having been tracking the postings of sightings of this bird for a while I knew of the various locations that it had been seen and carefully scanned the trees and hedges from all possible angles and locations for about an hour but to no avail. In the end I had to call it as yet another dip and headed for home, negotiating the heavy rush-hour traffic along the A14 and once having to be thankful for ABS on the car when the line of traffic I was in suddenly slowed down as I was looking at a road-sign wondering which way to go.

So a score of one out of four on my target list which was somewhat disappointing. I realised part way through the day that I'd chosen some target birds which were all eminently dippable so I could have come away with nothing at all. I was pleased to have found the shore larks (which were lifers for me) under adverse weather conditions and I realise that this weather got the better of me for the Cambrideshire birds though I did arrive back home to read that someone else had seen the cranes at Eldernell that day, persumably earlier on in better visibility, which was rather annoying. Still, that's birding after all and a few lessons had been learnt along the way: for the pheasants it's not a good idea to try for them between 7:30 and 9am; it's a good idea to look at the weather forecast at least a little bit! and finally some birds are just hard to locate. I'd managed some good year ticks along the way and discovered some new parts of the country to bird to which I would definitely be returning. On balance a "Grand Day Out".

National Year List 2010
095 oystercatcher 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
096 black-tailed godwit 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
097 grey plover 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
098 bar-tailed godwit 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
099 peregrine falcon 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
100 ringed plover 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
101 turnstone 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
102 shore lark 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk (LIFER)
103 barnacle goose 08/02/2010 Snettisham, Norfolk
104 red-legged partridge 08/02/2010 Eldernell, Cambs.
105 Bewick's swan 08/02/2010 Eldernell, Cambs.

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