Saturday, 21 September 2013

Leiston Shrike

That familiar urge had been becoming more noticeable of late. Day by day it had been increasing again until I had to act on it - yes, it was time for me to go on a twitch again. This lack of a patch is just making it worse for me - normally I can get at least some sort of birding fix by checking out Port Meadow but I haven't even got that crutch to lean on any more so I had to get my birding in more distant locations. Anyway, I'd been keeping an eye on what was about and over in East Anglia there were a couple of birds that I was interested in which were nicely bedded down and predictable, namely the Lesser Grey Shrike at Leiston in Suffolk and the Two-barred Crossbills at Lynford Arborteum near Mundford in Norfolk. Both had been around for several days at least and were being reported on a daily basis. The only trouble was that I had family commitments over the next couple of days in the late afternoon or evening so I would have to be back by then. I'm not too keen on the getting up at stupid o'clock for twitching so I eventually decided that the best course of action would be to drive over the previous night, stay in some B&B somewhere nearby in order to be on site nice and early and thereby be able to get back home in time for my family duties. Thus it was that on Thursday evening after dinner I packed up the Gnome-mobile and headed off to Suffolk, arriving after an uneventful journey at a small but cheap hotel somewhere north of Ipswich at around 9:30 pm. I would have got somewhere closer to stay but for some reason hotel prices were incredibly expensive around there, perhaps something to do with the Sizewell power station.

The next morning I was up bright and early and arrived at the Halfway Cottages just outside Leiston at around 7:30 a.m. Parking was a bit tricky and the road was very busy but I managed to find somewhere safely off the road before wandering down the track behind the cottages. The area was dominated by some huge electricity pylons underneath which were several horse paddocks fenced off by wood posts. The ground itself was rather scrubby with some gorse and small bushes and plenty of bracken. It took no more than a minute to find the bird perched on one of the posts and throughout my stay it spent most of its time sitting very still on these vantage points looking out for beetles. It would make the occasional sortie to grab one before returning to the post the pick them apart.

A very obliging bird, spending almost all of its time sitting nice and still on various posts

It was an interesting bird to look at. Superficially looking like its Great Grey cousin though its shape was very different. The bill was more prominent and stubby and it had a much longer primary projection. The pale tips to the coverts was another diagnostic feature of this species for a first winter bird such as this. I watched it for about an hour, with it being almost constantly on show before I decided to move on.

A bit of video for good measure

Next stop was Lynford Arboretum, a relatively short distance as the crow flies but a frustratingly long drive from Leiston. Indeed it was about an hour and a half before I finally arrived at the parking area at around 10:15 a.m. Across the road there was a phalanx of birders staring intently into their scopes so I hurried over in case they were watching the Two-barred's but they turned out just to be grilling a flock of Commons intently without success. Indeed it turned out that the Two-barred Crossbills had not been seen so far that day at all. I knew that trying to twitch Crossbills was always going to be a very hit or miss affair and that I could well come away empty handed but as I'd managed to see my first target so quickly I had a few hours to give this a go.

"Number 1 - the Larch" as Monty Python used to say (see here). These were the 
Crossbill trees that we were staking out by the visitor's hut.

After a short while the entire flock of Common Crossbills flew off and it was then very quiet and slow for a long long time. I even attempted a nap, with one ear cocked for the sounds of either some incoming Crossbills or someone calling out a sighting. After midday things seemed to pick up a little: a few Crossbills flew in, a Firecrest and a Spotted Flycatcher were seen but still no luck with our target bird. A large moth (a Red Underwing I think) was fluttering about and a couple of Southern Hawkers and a Common Darter were also good distractions. At around 1:30 pm as I was thinking that I was going to have to leave the Crossbill flock flew in, settled in a tree behind up and then flew down somewhere out of sight to drink. They then returned to the trees though despite a thorough grilling from the assembled birders (about twenty five on average though people came and went) there was no sign of the Two-barreds. It was amazing though how you could seen a flock of fifteen Crossbills fly into a tree and then not be able to find more than a couple as you searched through the tree with your bins or scope. Finally at 2pm I realised that I would have to leave (especially with the Friday afternoon traffic to negotiate) so reluctantly headed back to my car.

These are not the Crossbills you are looking for

The Sat Nav was suggesting a new route (for me) back home via the A428 and A1 to Milton Keynes. As I was keen to avoid any motorways given that it was a Friday afternoon I decided to give it a shot and I was very pleasantly surprised. All the traffic was queuing up on the slip road to the A14 but the A428 and A1 were both blissfully empty and it wasn't until Milton Keynes that I hit any traffic at all. So it ended up taking exactly the 2.5 hours that the Sat Nav suggested it should (a great result for a Friday afternoon) and I arrived back at Chateau Gnome in time for a nice cup of tea with my VLW & family, nicely in time to undertake my family duties. 

That evening RBA reported that the Two-barred Crossbills had finally turned up at around 4:15 p.m. so at least they hadn't put in an appearance an indecently short time after my departure. All in all a successful trip though it would have been nice to have come away with both targets. Still, you can't win them all.

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