Monday, 8 March 2010

Rough-legs in Norfolk

Having already had a big staying-overnight trip to Norfolk this winter I was not anticipating another trip to this region any time soon. Indeed when local birder Jason "Badger" Coppock suggested a day trip there to see the rough-legged buzzards I initially turned him down, saying that it was a bit far to travel in one day. However it's been such a quiet February that the lack of any bird action was starting to take its toll. I found myself looking at how far it was to Gigrin Farm in deepest darkest Wales and even found myself thinking that driving over three hours each way there wasn't too bad. I know that seasoned birders will laugh at my timidity in travelling too far for my birding but you must remember that I'm relatively new to all this still and am certainly not a hardcore twitcher in any way. However I was champing at the bit for some bird action and so decided to take Jason up on his offer. I accordingly spent a couple of weeks being a bit of a chore whore at home in order to gain sufficient brownie points for a full day out birding. Jason had originally said that if we went mid week it would be a 5:30 a.m. start to avoid the traffic which I rather balked at (again I'm clearly not a hardcore twitcher) but we could leave later at the weekend and after some negotiation we settled on 6:30. I think Jason was actually secretly pleased about the relatively late start as he'd come back from Gigrin Farm the previous day and was glad of a "lie-in". The plan was to try Thorpe Marshes and Chedgrave Marshes first for the rough-legs, nip around to the Buckenham area for the Taiga bean geese, then look for cranes in the traditional area near the coast. If we had time after that then Jason was quite keen to see the Sheringham glaucous gull as there's not been one in Oxon for a couple of years now though I'd seen the Calvert bird this year in Bucks.

The journey there was uneventful and we made good time, arriving in Haddiscoe in under three hours. I'd done my homework for the trip and had little maps printed out of where to go for the various birds. For the Thorpe Marshes buzzard one needed to pull in at the first layby on the A143 once one left Haddiscoe heading towards St. Olaves. Knowing that the bird was to the north-west of the road I was looking for a layby on the left of the road and we eventually found one though it was further along the road than I was expecting. We piled out and started to scan. Within about twenty seconds I found a distance buzzard on a post and we proceeded to give it a good scoping. It was certainly striking having a very pale streaked head, a dark upper breast, then a pale lower breast band with dark markings along its lower flanks. As it was facing us we couldn't really see its tail. Jason remarked that it should fly soon but I remembered how it had been reported recently as often sitting there for some time. Fortunately Jason was right and it soon took off revealing the diagnostic while tail with a broad black terminal band and also a rather pale underwing with the classic dark carpal patches. The bird proceeded to go through its repertoire with some soaring, a bit of hovering, flying quite high and then settle on a post again much closer to us so I was able to get some decent record shots despite the heat haze and the wind. We were joined by a local birder who had been watching it further up the road. Apparently we were in the wrong layby though he did say that this was as good a view of the bird as he'd had all winter. It was also Jason's best view of a rough-legged (he'd wanted to come on the trip as previous views hadn't been so great) and it was in fact my first one ever so everyone was happy. The local explained how the pale head was indicative of a juvenile and that there was also an adult bird about (mostly seen at Chedgrave Marshes) which had more of a greyish tail and a darker head. After a while the bird soared off towards Chedgrave and our local guide offered to let us follow him there which we duly did.

I managed a few still digiscoped shots of the Thorpe Marshes rough-legged buzzard of which this was the best.

Also a videograb of the bird

and Some video footage

It was a relatively short journey of some five minutes to the car park there and a further five minutes to walk through the wood to the Chedgrave Marshes viewing "mound". This viewing mound was actually only a few metres high though we joked that for Norfolk this must be quite a height. From this vantage point one could view out over some reed beds which surrounded the river Waveney in the foreground and in the distance some rough marsh land. Within a few minutes we picked up some short-eared owls and marsh harriers quartering over the area as well as a few distant common buzzards but there was no sign of any rough-legs which apparently hadn't been seen there for several hours. This made us all the more appreciative of how quickly and well we'd seen our bird and we decided to head on to the next port of call.

The next stop was Buckenham Marshes. Our "guide" had suggested scoping from the station platform but Jason had a little local knowledge of his own and we went to Cantley instead where one only needed to walk a few yards along a footpath to get a view of the Yare valley. We viewed from here and soon found some canda geese in the distance and then a little closer a flock of bean geese. The heat haze and wind made things a little difficult to view though we could just make out their bills. My videograb record shot was absolute rubbish but if you squint you can just make out some orange in the bill.

The Cantley Taiga Bean Geese

With the score at two out of two so far we went on to what was probably going to be the hardest part of the trip, namely trying to find some cranes. There was always the roost at Stubb Mill and I'd read that they can be seen there earlier in the day though we were keen not to have to hang around too long. We decided that we would do a trawl of the traditional area between West Somerton and Waxham and duly made our way off in that direction. We started off along the road keeping our eyes peeled though it soon became apparent that it wasn't going to be easy to spot them even if they were there as there was lots of hiding places they could be tucked away in. After a while we spotted a couple of birders in the opposite direction and we stopped to ask them if they'd seen any cranes. "At least seven" came back the reply so we got directions and were soon heading off along a well-defined path. I'm being deliberately a bit vague about the exact location as I'm not sure how sensitive this sort of information is even though it's a traditional crane area. According to our instructions we had to walk for about a mile during which we saw a barn owl catch a vole and found a flock of grey lags with a single pink-foot in amongst them. I know that in Norfolk pink-foots are dead common but as an Oxon county birder I still get rather excited when I see them! After a while it all got rather birdless and I was beginning to think that our luck was running out when Jason spotted three cranes not too far in front of us. One of them was a first winter with drabber brown body feathering and lacking the white neck and head stripe. The wind and haze hampered the record shot efforts but I dutifully recorded them for posterity.

The adult and first winter

and again

Most chuffed to have scored our cranes relatively painlessly we were now onto "bonus birds" and decided to head north to Sheringham for the glaucous gull. Jason had mentioned how painfully difficult it was to get from east to north Norfolk and it took the best part of an hour to make our way up there though we did get briefly lost in the maze of back roads near Sea Palling (my fault as I was navigating). Driving past Cromer we saw a flock of oystercatchers on the fields but apart from that the journey was uneventful. Sheringham was a busy little place on a Saturday so we slowly made our way to the sea front and stopped in a small car park there. There were only about a dozen or so large gulls there and we soon picked out the glaucous. It seemed to be coming rather close to the top of the beach and as I could spy a photographer there I wondered if some food had been put out. This turned out to be correct and a bag of fish heads and offal had been strategically dumped on the beach so that from our raised vantage point the bird was often no more than some fifteen metres away, certainly the closest views of a glaucous gull that I've ever had. In fact it was too close to digiscope eaily (though Jason managed it) so I took some shots with my P&S Panasonic with the x10 optical zoom which came out OK.

The glaucous gull on the beach

and his other side

doing an impersonation of an angel!

An obliging turnstone though it was severely back-lit

With the score now 4 out of 4 and it getting late in the day we thought that we'd have one more try for a reported snow goose at Snettisham that morning. I seemed to recall that it had been there yesterday as well so we headed off, frustratingly slowly, towards Snetters. We took a sneaky short-cut towards the end and saw a couple of Egyptian geese for our troubles together with what looked like a brood of youngsters! We arrived at the Snettisham car park at just before 5pm and quickly yomped off towards the lagoons and the Rotary hide where it had been reported. On the way we saw a nice male stonechat and I tried unsuccessfully to string a silhoutetted goldfinch into a twite. There were surprisingly few geese on the lagoons at all and the mudflats held mostly shelduck with a few other waders dotted around. We could see some geese flying in and landing somewhere though we couldn't make out where so it seemed that the snow goose was a tick too far.

We decided to walk back along the shingle beach to see if we could find the shore larks and were about half way back when a couple of birds flew over making a call that I remembered from last time I was here. Their yellow heads stood out in the evening sun light confirming them as the two shore larks which landed some fifty yards behind us along the beach. We accordingly went back and spent a pleasant but chilly few minutes scoping and photographing them though I was a little disappointed at how few of the photos came out though the video footage was ok.

One of the shore larks. The low viewing angle meant that the autofocus was often not very accurate and many of my shots were out of focus

Some video footage of the two birds

With the light now fading we made our way back to the car but Jason had one more trick up his sleeve in the form of a visit to a "traditional" hen harrier roost. We arrived (noting a barn owl en route) to find a couple of cars already there and two males and a female harrier performing well. It appeared that each time one of them would land in the scrub as another flew over it would put it the first one up again so they kept landing and flying up again. Strange but most entertaining to watch. By now it was getting dark and it had suddenly got very cold so we didn't stay long.

A most successful day out indeed with the birding gods very much smiling on us. To have got all our target birds and several bonus birds was a treat indeed and I'd even managed a couple of lifers as well as five year list ticks. In addition, whilst the Taiga bean geese aren't a BOU tick they are a UK400 club one and I'm told that they may well be ripe for a split at some point. As a point of interest, I've been contemplating this listing malarky and was thinking that from a birders point of view the more you can tick the better so why not have a "tick ever sub-species" list? I've not implemented this yet though I may muse on this more in future entries.

National Year List 2010
110 lesser redpoll 05/03, Garden, Oxon
111 rough-legged buzzard 06/03 Thorpe Marshes, Norfolk (LIFER)

112 short-eared owl 06/03 Chedgrave Marshes, Norfolk
113 crane 06/03 "Traditional", Norfolk (LIFER)
114 egyptian goose 06/03 Snettisham, Norfolk
115 hen harrier 06/03 "Traditional", Norfolk

Taiga Bean Goose, 06/03 Cantley, Norfolk


Paul Woolnough said...

Glad you had a good time.

For future trips the A149 Cromer Great Yarmouth road is much better than the coast road. Access to Sea Palling Waxham etc from the north side is from Stalham near Tescos.

Cromer can be avoided by using the B1436 from the Cromer side of Thorpe Market through Roughton and Felbrigg to the A148 road out of Cromer.

Paul Norwich

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