Friday, 20 December 2013

Gnome Goes North

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I don't do much birding in the north of the country - of course this is obviously because of my self-imposed restriction on how far I'm prepared to travel. This year, apart from my trip to Scotland the furthest north that I've gone on a trip has been just north of Stoke for the Caspian Tern. There is therefore a whole chunk of the country which I've never visited and this does of course mean that all sorts of goodies pass me by. As it had been a few weeks since my last birding trip I was naturally starting to get "those urges" again and was therefore casting around for things to see. The most obvious birds were the Parrot Crossbills at Budby in Nottinghamshire which were just about within striking distance though apparently they were best seen in the morning so it would mean an early start, something I'm not usually that keen on. I therefore contemplated my usual tactic in such circumstance of going up the previous night and staying somewhere cheap and cheerful so that I could get an early start the next day. There was another factor to consider of course, that being the weather. With very strong winds forecast for Wednesday and for the whole of next week it looked like Thursday and Friday were the only two possible days. In the end I decided to head up on Wednesday night despite the terrible forecast for that evening and to spend Thursday chasing the Crossbills. So after dinner with my family and despite my VLW's warning that she'd never contemplate driving with such a bad forecast, I put my gear into the Gnome mobile and set off. After all "how bad could the weather be" I thought.

The answer was "pretty terrible". The rain was constant and torrential. That coupled with strong and very blustery winds made for tricky driving conditions. Fortunately there were not many other cars about that time of night and everyone was sensibly driving more slowly but one had to concentrate hard the whole time. To avoid distractions with the Sat Nav I had carefully memorised the route: M40, then across the M69 past Coventry, one stop north on the M1 and then the A46 northwards. I'd not been on the A46 before and was keen to see what it was like. It turned out to be a great little road: a nice dual carriageway with very little traffic on it. As I worked my way northwards I wondered what the scenery was like though in the darkness I had no idea. Towards the end of the journey the constant rain turned into a sudden cloud burst that completely overwhelmed the wipers and I could not see anything ahead of me. I had to slow to a crawl but fortunately there was no other traffic about and in a minute it had passed. Finally after about two and a half hours I arrived at my B&B, a very nice farm house situated just a few minutes to the north of Budby village and very reasonably priced. Tired after my difficult drive I soon settled down for the night, wondering what the next day would bring.

The next day dawned clear and sunny as promised with only a moderate breeze. I left the B&B at around 8am and five minutes later pulled up in the cul-de-sac that comprises the southern half of Budby village. As I was tooling up another car arrived which turned out to be a couple of birders from Humberside. As we walked along the track together I naturally asked them about their star bird, the first winter Ivory Gull on the Humber estuary. They'd been to see it twice already and told me how it was almost always on view but occasionally it would come in to feed on the fish that have been left out for it where it would show down to a matter of fifteen yards or so. I was suitably envious.

The gateway to the heathland...

...and the heathland itself with scattered conifer trees

After about half a mile we came to the start of the heathland area where the Parrot Crossbills were usually seen. The heathland itself was mostly heather with scattered trees including coniferous ones that the Crossbills frequented. It turned out that my two companions didn't know where to go at all so we relied on my rather sketchy knowledge gleaned from pouring over maps, RBA reports and asking Ewan who'd visited a few days earlier. We went along the main track across the heath and after a while came to a crossroads with a couple of cattle grids on either side. I thought that the birds were frequenting the puddles just to the west of this area and there were some good trees nearby to back that up. As we stood around my northern friends gripped me off with some crippling photos of the Ivory Gull on the back of their camera. The sun had not yet reached us but we were in a sheltered hollow so out of the wind. It was remarkably quiet with just a few Chaffinches calling occasionally to break the silence - definitely no Crossbills to be heard though. After a while another birder turned up who confirmed that he'd seen the birds a few days earlier where we were standing. We waited around a bit. Another birder arrived who seemed to know my northern friends. He'd been before too but said that the birds often showed along the path on the other side of the crossroads where there was a pool. He also said that whilst the birds called in flight, once they settle in a tree to start feeding they were completely silent and were very hard to spot. We decided to head over to the other side to check out the pool - at least we'd be in the sunshine on that side I thought. We had just got back to the crossroads when we heard the distinctive "jipping" of Crossbills. Two of them flew low over us and then joined up with a flock of a further dozen before the whole flock circled back round and headed off to the east where we were headed. What was most noticeable was that their call was distinctively different from Common Crossbills: to my ears it was much more tinny sounding as if being played through very poor speakers with the bass turned right down. On this alone I was happy to ID them as the Parrot Crossbills though the fact that there were fourteen of them (the correct flock count for the Parrots) and that RBA hadn't been reporting any Commons at all at the site both helped in this respect!

We headed east scanning the surrounding trees and soon spotted them in the distance sitting on the bare branches of a deciduous tree by the hidden pool. As we drew nearer they flew up into the tops of a rather small neighbouring conifer tree and we hurried into position to start taking photos, me with my didiscoping gear. In the bright sunshine it was easy to see all the ID points: the bull-necked appearance and the very deep bills were obvious even to the naked eye. After a short while they flew to another tree nearby to the left of us and we hurriedly changed position, taking a few more snaps before they gradually melted away down into the depths of the trees to start feeding. It was amazing how quickly the entire flock of fourteen became invisible with just the occasional glimpse of one as it moved around in the depths of the trees. As predicted, they were indeed totally silent. In fact so invisible were they that one birder (the first to join us) assumed that they'd gone and went off back to the other area.

Digiscoped Parrot Crossbills

As I stood in the warm sunshine waiting to see if they would re-appear I took stock of the situation. It was now 9:30 a.m. and I'd pretty quickly achieved as good a view of the birds as I was likely to get. They might well appear again after their feed but by all accounts they could often be rather elusive so it wasn't guaranteed. My thoughts started to turn towards a cheeky foray north for the Ivory Gull which had come up as "still present" that morning on RBA. If I set off now I could be there by midday I reasoned. Of course there was going to be a long four hour drive back home at the end but to see an Ivory Gull it would be worth it. I gave in, said my farewells to my fellow birders and hurried back towards the car.

On the way back whom should I meet but Ian Kendall, from October Cornwall birding fame. It's a funny coincidence as the last Crossbill twitch I went on for the Two-barreds, I'd met up with Dave Chown whom I also knew from my Cornish adventures. Anyway, Ian told me how after Cornwall he'd had a very poor autumn, having missed the Porthgwarra Hermit Thrush through being on a course, dipping the Mourning Dove on Rhum and not having enough money for the Cape May Warbler. He was there not to see the Parrot Crossbills, but instead to look for the Great Grey Shrike which had been reported recently and which he still needed for his year list (he was on 295). I told him that there'd been no sign of it so far and gave him the Parrot location should he be interested. We parted company and I headed on to the car. There I de-tooled, set the Sat Nav coordinates for Patrington Haven which I "just happened" to have programmed in the day before on the off-chance that I'd get the Parrots early and would have time of the Gull. The official ETA was in two hours but I reckoned that the Sat Nav was being overly pessimistic and that one and three quarters was going to be more likely. I fired up the Gnome mobile, pointed her northwards and set off.

The journey proved uneventful and it was indeed an hour and three quarters later, at around 11:45 am that I pulled up by a long line of cars on the single-track road that led to Outstray Farm on the north bank of the Humber estuary. The last leg of the journey after Hull had been rather long and tedious but I was there now. Just as I arrived a message came through on RBA that the Ivory Gull was "feeding on fish by the pumping station". This was the hoped for holy grail of Ivory Gull viewing as my northern Crossbill chums had told me. Would it stay there long enough for me to get to it I wondered as I hurriedly got my stuff together and yomped down the path.

As I went I met a large mass of satisfied birders coming the other way which was not a good sign and I hoped that it didn't mean that the bird had finished with its fish lunch and moved off again. I heard various gripping comments such as "you couldn't really ask for better views..." as I hurried along. I kept being asked whether I had any fish in the plastic bag that I was carrying though it only held my lunch that I'd bought from a petrol station en route. In the distance I could see the pumping station but there didn't seem to be many birders near it and I started to realise that I'd missed the Ivory Gull porn fest. Finally after a twenty minute slog I arrived to discover that the bird was about 150 yards out on the shoreline having a post-feed wash. I set up my scope and had a good look at the bird. It had a strange pigeon-shaped head, almost pure white feathering all over except from the usual black dots along the leading edge of the wings. The dusky markings about its head were modest and the dark bill seemed to have a paler tip to it. The jizz was very strange for a gull, and in some respects it almost looked like a large white dove instead. I set about trying to digiscope it though the fact that it was an all-white bird at a distance in bright sunlight and in a very strong wind meant that it wasn't at all easy. What's more it was constantly on the move as it kept on compulsively washing itself so in the end I just held the shutter down and hoped that a few of the hundreds of shots that I took might come out OK. I also took some video footage though I was very much relying on the youTube image stabilisation function to salvage something from the shaking blur that I could see in the view finder.

Given the conditions I'm very pleased with how these shots came out

To appreciate just how good the youTube image stabilisation function is,
take a look at the unstabilised footage here. It's a miracle how well it works.

After a while and with the Gull  still vigorously washing away (it must have been a very messy meal) I took a break from grilling it in order to look around at the surroundings. The vast expanse of the Humber estuary stretched away in front of us with a salt marsh to our right and a large reedbed behind us. On the estuary there were hundreds of wading birds including Golden Plover, Godwits, Redshank, Curlew and Dunlin as well as lots of Shelduck. It looked at great spot though it could benefit from a hide I thought as the continuous wind started to wear me down. Behind us someone spotted a male Hen Harrier working its way over the reedbed and we all got nice albeit distant views. A few Little Egrets were flying around and one could hear the occasional distant Curlew cry. All in all it was a wonderfully bleak setting in which to watch an Ivory Gull. I munched on my lunch as I 'scoped the Gull washing away for a total of at least fifty minutes before it finally went on to preening itself vigorously, which wasn't much better from a photographic point of view.

The view across the Humber. You can just see the Ivory Gull as 
a white blob on the shoreline roughly in line with the distant tower

The salt marsh to our right

Gradually more people arrived to pay homage to the Ivory Gull which showed no sign of finishing its cleaning routine. With a long return journey ahead of me I started to think about the time which was by now marching on. I'd told my VLW that I'd be back my 6pm and it was now about 1:30 pm. Time was always going to have been tight on this cheeky bonus twitch and the chances of it coinciding with a porn session were always going to be slim at best. Reluctantly I realised that I would have to settle for my perfectly reasonable but not crippling views. I packed up my gear and started on the long slog back to the car where I de-tooled, fired up the Gnome mobile and pointed the her south. I felt confident that I could navigate my way back home sans Sat Nav and headed off towards the maelstrom of traffic that is the M1. The travelling gods were kind to me and there were no major hold-ups though the traffic was heavy at times. Thus it was that at a little before 6 pm I arrived back home at Chateau Gnome, tired but very pleased with my northern foray and having seen some great birds.

1 comment:

Ewan Urquhart said...

Excellent Adam. The Ivory Gull was an absolute beauty