Sunday, 15 June 2014

Sleepless in Norfolk

My last birding trip down to Topsham for the Ross' Gull was also the day that news broke of a male Spectacled Warbler down in Burnham Overy Staithe in Norfolk - apparently only the eight ever for Britain. Now, Norfolk is normally a bit too far for me for twitching, certainly it's well beyond my two hour twitching rule (which seems to have deteriorated into more of a guideline these days) so it has to be something pretty good to tempt me to make what amounts to a seven hour round trip. Anyway, having had a (rather expensive thanks to the car repairs) outing already on the Monday of that week there was no prospect of my making another trip for a while. However, when the bird seemed to be comfortably settled and was seen all that week it did start to get me thinking that I really ought to go and pay homage to it. The following week was difficult however as daughter no. 2 was away for the week on her post-exam work experience (at Twickenham Film Studios) and my VLW had gone with her to keep her company. This left me holding Fort Gnome with our son L to ferry to and from school, not to mention the two teams of builders who were coming and going all week plastering and digging the building site that was once our home. With a party to attend at the weekend it was starting to look like next Monday (exactly two weeks since the bird was originally found) might be the only time that I could make it when fortunately a window of opportunity appeared: both sets of builders were going to be away on Thursday and daughter no. 1 was going to be doing her revision at home that day so she would be able to pick up L from school. Whilst I would have to take him to school this would leave me with enough time to make the trip out to Norfolk. Daughter 1 even volunteered to cook for that evening so I wouldn't have to get back to make the evening meal. So it was all sorted and the night before I put the finishing touches to my plan, checking the route and where to go on site etc. Of course the best laid plans etc... At last light Mark Ribbons and a couple of others up in Banbury found a Phalarope species at Balscote Quarry. Whilst it was too dark for them to identify it, at this time of year it was almost certainly a Red-necked and there seemed to be a quite a few sightings being reported elsewhere in the country to back up this theory. What to do? This was a county mega so despite the fact that I had a seven hour driving day ahead of me naturally the most sensible thing to do would be to get up at 3:45 a.m. so that I could be on-site at 4:30 in case it was still there. So that's what I did.

There is something special about being up and about this early. The first Song Thrush started singing at 3:30 and it was already starting to get light by then. The roads were wonderfully empty and I arrived in good spirits at Balscote Quarry to find several of the Banbury birding crew already there. My good mood was soon deflated however when I learnt that so far there was no sign of it. Gradually the usual suspects started to turn up with Badger & his "Mrs to be" arriving despite the fact that he had to head off to Heathrow to pick someone up very soon. Tezzer, Andy & Ewan all arrived as well and we chatted away, watched the sun come up, spotted a Little Ringed Plover or two, saw a few Yellowhammers and a Whitethroat and altogether no Phalaropes at all. After about an hour and a half, feeling rather spaced out from the lack of sleep, I headed back home in order to get my son ready for school and to prepare for the main trip of the day.

Balscote Quarry
At just after 8 a.m. I dropped L off at school at the pre-school breakfast club and then pointed the Gnome mobile in the direction of Norfolk, a route that I was fairly familiar with having done it a few times now, though I did fall back on the Sat Nav as I went around Northampton - there's one particular roundabout which always seems to catch me out. The sun was shining, it seemed a perfect day weather wise, the warbler was reported as "still present" on RBA and the traffic was light so despite the lack of sleep I arrived at at King's Lynn in the usual two and three quarter hours in good spirits. For the last bit of the journey I decided to do as the Sat Nav suggested and go on the back roads to Burnham Overy Staithe rather than sticking to the A149 though personally I suspected that there wasn't much in it. This did mean that I went through Burnham Market which turned out to be a very pretty and popular (judging by the number of people there) village which looked very nice in the sunshine. The last bit of a Norfolk trip always turns out to be remarkably tortuous and so it was in this case with the post Kings Lynn section taking a tedious three quarters of an hour. Finally I arrived in Burnham Overy Staithe and parked up in the car park by the creek, a place I was familiar with from my previous trip to see the Booted and Barred Warblers in September 2012. Pleased finally to be there, I got my gear together and started on the long walk along the dyke towards the sea and the sand dunes.

Looking back towards the village

In this fine June sunshine I really felt that I was seeing Norfolk in a different light for the first time. All my previous visits have been in the autumn or winter where "bleak" would probably have been the most apt description but here in the strong sunshine with a gentle breeze to take the edge off the heat it looked altogether a different place. Despite my keenness to see the Warbler I savoured the long walk out to the dunes to the line of twitchers that I could see in the distance. There were calling Redshank looking smart in their summer breeding plumage as well as the piping of Oystercatchers. An Avocet flew over, giving away its presence by its call. Over by the large reed-bordered pool near the first bend I managed to see a Bearded Tit zipping over the reeds briefly and there were hunting Kestrels and Buzzards to check out. All very pleasant.

I finally got to the boardwalk and then set off in a westerly direction following the edge of the Sueda towards the dozen or so birders whom I could see in the distance. I eventually arrived some three quarters of an hour after leaving the car, to find them staking out a few bushes in a rather bored fashion. Apparently the bird was showing occasionally, perhaps every thirty minutes or so, when it would perch up on top of these bushes and sing briefly before ducking back out of sight. I was just setting up my scope when I heard it singing and sure enough a few moments later up it popped before it ducked down again. In appearance it looked like a dainty Common Whitethroat though with noticeably dark lores and surrounding area. Whilst it had the white eye ring that gives it its name, it wasn't as pronounced on this bird as some photos that I've seen of this species. The wings were more evenly rufous in tone than a Whitethroat and it had striking orange legs. The song sounded rather like a cross between a Dunnock and a Whitethroat. All in all a very nice bird indeed. This brief showing was repeated a few times, thankfully more frequently than every thirty minutes, so I got several brief views of it before things seemed to go rather quiet.

One of the other birders there reported that there was a Little Tern colony just over behind the sand dune hill near to us (presumably Gun Hill) so in the lull I went to take a look. The scenery was certainly beautiful and I couldn't resist taking some more snaps of the stunning blue sky and sea. There were plenty of Little Terns flying around and I made a half-hearted attempt to photograph them but it was too difficult with my super-zoom camera so after a while I made my way back to the Warbler watchers.

Over behind Gunn Hill looking towards the sea
After a while of the bird still not appearing again another birder arrived to join the twitch line. Almost immediately he spotted the Warbler, not on the regular bushes but down in the Sueda not a few yards to the side of where we were standing. There was some initial scepticism from some of the people there who'd become attuned to looking for it on the bushes but it turned out that this was a local birder, Julian Bhalerao, who'd been coming regularly to see the bird and who knew what he was talking about. I soon realised that actually the bird was spending most of its time in the Sueda and just occasionally popping up to sing in the bushes that we'd been dutifully watching so I changed my focus on it more to the Sueda where I was rewarded with many more views of it over the next hour.

The Sueda - home to the Spectacled Warbler
It was a very relaxed affair in the summer sunshine, waiting for the bird to re-appear. I even got a bit sunburnt on the back of my neck so hot was it. The bird itself seemed remarkably unbothered by our presence and would actually often come quite close. Julian was keen to get some photos of it and I too had yet to capture it on camera so as the bird worked its way westwards for a bit we followed it and were eventually rewarded with some great views in the foothills of Gun Hill as it fed and sang in some larger scrub area some fifty yards beyond the original bushes. I even managed to get some passable video footage of it.

After it flew off even further west I decided that I'd better think about getting back and started to head off on the long slog back to the car. A Surrey birder kept me company on the return journey and we chatted amiably about birding and stopped to watch things as we went. We were treated to a fly-over of first one and then a pair of Spoonbills and a Little Tern was fishing by the Bearded Tit pool. In the bright sunshine I attempted to photograph some of the Redshank and Oystercatchers as well as the scenery. 

Muddy Oystercatcher
Finally back at the car park we parted company and I de-tooled and pointed the Gnome mobile in the direction of home, this time opting for the A149 route which seemed a little quicker if anything than the cross-country route. Unlike my previous trip, fortunately this time the journey back was uneventful and I arrived in Oxford at around 6:30 p.m. very tired after my long day but very pleased with my Norfolk adventure despite the lack of sleep.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Drilling, Dipping and Ticking

We've got the builders in at the moment re-doing our downstairs shower room and also treating all the long outstanding damp problems that tend to come with an old Victorian house. This has involved a fair amount of heavy duty drilling to chip off old render and to dig up the floor of the shower room etc. Since I work from home I soon found that I couldn't really concentrate with such a racket going on all day so have decided that on days when there's serious drilling going on, that I will beat a retreat from the sanctuary of my office and instead go out and have a day's birding.

The first time was a couple of weeks ago and no doubt you can guess from the fact that I haven't blogged about it until now, sadly it didn't go too well. Now as regular readers know, I don't tend to like long distance twitching as a rule: it's a long way to go if you don't end up seeing your bird. I have in the past made exceptions for really good birds that were long stayers or highly likely to be seen but in general the two hour guideline works well for me. However I was sorely tempted by the Terek Sandpiper up at Covenham Reservoir in Lincolnshire and the previous day it had been showing well all day. Therefore on the day of my first "escape the drilling" outing when it was reported again first thing in the morning I assumed that it would be pretty much a "sure thing" for all of that day as well. Therefore I set off on the three hour journey to Covenham with a high degree of optimism. I even got a re-assuring "showing well" text part way through the trip and when another text came through just before I arrived I assumed that it too would be carrying good news. Pulling up in the car park I checked the message just to be sure and let out a howl of disappointment. It had last been seen about an hour ago when it had flown off! There were a bunch of disconsolate birders around the reservoir, mainly consisting of late-comers such as myself and the story was all the same though the reason for its departure seemed to vary. Some blamed pushy photographers, others said that a low fly-past by the RAF put it up. Either way it didn't really matter, it was gone and I had dipped. I did a complete walk around the reservoir (à la Wickster) just to stretch my legs and to check that it wasn't hiding anywhere else but apart from a couple of Common Sandpipers and several Wall Brown butterflies there was nothing of note. I ate my lunch in the car park slowly in case it was refound elsewhere in the vicinity but with no news of it eventually I had to concede defeat and made the long slog back home, with nothing to show for my efforts apart from a nasty dip and a feeling of great disappointment. Of course I know that dipping is all part of birding and I've done my fair share of it but I generally try to minimise it as much as possible by only going for birds that I have a good chance of seeing so I definitely wasn't a happy bunny.

The next batch of drilling was due to occur on Monday so naturally I looked around for something good to see. The Ross's Gull at Bowling Green Marsh RSPB, near Topsham in Devon looked a likely candidate: although it had only been identified on the Friday it had apparently been around for nine days before that (I don't really know what those Devon birders have been playing at ;-) ) and had still been around on the Sunday so it seemed a good bet. The only issue with it was that it would often spend a lot of time on the estuary, only coming back to the marsh at high tide or to roost. Fortunately high tide wasn't until 10 am on Monday so an early start should ensure that I got there in time to see it. I was up at around 5:45 a.m. and out of the house by 6:30 arriving shortly after 9 a.m. as expected. I even managed to find a parking spot just at the top of the road down to the marsh where I tooled up and hurried down to the hide. There I was greeted with a view of a large pool with a reedbed at the back and a bunch of loafing Black-headed Gulls.

Bowling Green Marsh RSPB - the view from the hide

It turned out that the bird was there (hurray!) but it was currently hidden (boo!). Someone tried to get me on it but at that instant something spooked the flock and they all went up. This actually turned out to be a good thing as the bird was very easy to pick out in flight. Its small size, with the distinctive dark extended central tail feather and W pattern across its wings all meant that it really stood out. I watched it as the gulls swirled around for some minutes before they all settled again, this time with the Ross's Gull in plain view. I quickly rattled off some digiscoped shots though the light was rather poor.

Three shots of the Ross's Gull
I'd spent no more that a couple of minutes shooting off photos when they all went up again and the Ross's Gull moved off to the left of the hide where the view was very restricted. I settled myself down to wait for it to return and in the mean time took stock of my surroundings. There were between 50 and 100 Black-headed Gulls milling around with a couple of Med Gulls, the odd Common Gull and a single Herring Gull in amongst them. Over to the right in a pool were three Little Egrets and a Grey Heron. Various Shelduck were also around as well as a smattering of ducks. 

Eventually the Ross's Gull flew back in. I picked it up in flight just before it settled on the shoreline. People were just trying to get on it when when suddenly all the gulls including the Ross's flew up as a Peregrine spooked the flock. We watched as the birds flew off to the right and down into the hidden River Clyst behind the reeds and out of sight. 

Shortly afterwards, Phil and Hilary (or "P&H" as they are known), my chums from Cornwall turned up. They'd come up for the day from the far south west in order to try and see the Ross's Gull. Naturally they were disappointed to hear that it had just been spooked by a falcon but settled down to wait for its return. In the mean time we caught up on news and they filled me in on all the Cornish gossip.

Time passed and gradually the hide started to empty. I was carefully grilling all birds that flew in, trying to pick out the Ross's as it came back. Suddenly I picked out a large white incoming bird with a huge spoon-like bill. "Spoonbill" I called out to the hide, and sure enough it was a 1st summer Spoonbill which settled in front of the reedbed. I took a few shots but it was rather distant.

Distant Spoonbill
Time wore on, I got bored with watching the Spoonbill and there was still no sign of the Ross's Gull. Most of the Black-headed Gulls had returned by now and were one again loafing by the main pool. After a while P&H, who it turned out knew the area pretty well as they had friends who lived in Exeter, decided to go for a walk along Goat Walk - a narrow raised path just at the end of the lane by the river Exe where you could look out towards Turf on the other side of the river. I decided to join them just to stretch my legs if nothing else. We found that the river was still pretty high despite it being nearly two hours after high tide though there was a stretch of exposed mud in the distance. On it we found a bunch of Oystercatchers, a few Black-headed Gulls a couple of Whimbrel and a family of Shelduck including nearly a dozen ducklings though sadly there was no sign of the Ross's. P&H decided that they would head off into town for some shopping and to get a bite to eat and then come back later for the evening roost which apparently the Ross's Gull had been attending faithfully for a while. I elected to head back to the hide to finish off my packed lunch and then to decide what to do. 

Back in the hide I'd just settled down to eat my sandwiches when the Spoonbill, which was still there, flew up and landed in one of the small pools to the right of the hide that was just by the roadside and which could be viewed through a gap in the hedge. There were only four of us left in the hide: one chap who'd got the high tide time wrong and was cursing his luck for missing the Ross's and two others who came with me to look at the Spoony. Fortunately the Spoonbill seemed quite unperturbed by us peering at it through the hedge and we were treated to what were for me easily my closest ever views of a Spoonbill, only some twenty five or so yards away. I busied myself with trying to digiscope it though frankly it was a little too close!

Close up Spoonbill
After a while I'd had my fill of crippling Spoonbill views and went back to the hide to finish my lunch. It was now about 1:30 and according to the pager there was nothing else around of note apart from a Greenish Warbler in Somerset which had deteriorated into "no further sign". With nothing else to tempt me if I set off now I'd be back home in time for an afternoon cup of tea with my VLW. So this is what I decided to do.

I wish that I could write that the journey home was uneventful but unfortunately half way up the M5 the car in front of me hit some debris which it kicked up into my path. It must have ruptured my radiator as five minutes later the warning lights went on on the dashboard and my temperature dial went off the scale. Fortunately I was subscribed to a car rescue package so I pulled over and called up the relevant people. There then followed a long wait for the car to be picked and taken somewhere safe for assessment. I was then relayed to a service station where after another long wait a second relay team took me home. I arrived back very tired at 8:30 in the evening some four and a half hours later that anticipated and with the headache of a possible large repair bill to worry about. Still at least I'd had a grand day out and had managed to see a rare Arctic Gull. I sent an enquiring text to P&H about whether they'd managed to see the bird in the end and fortunately it turned out that it had come in to roost at 8:55 in the evening, though apparently it was the only bird there and it decided not to linger but at least they got to see it. 

So there you are, a good day out tempered by some car problems. Sadly there is no further drilling scheduled for our works but at least I got a couple of good outings from it and I even managed to tick a cracking Ross's Gull.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Frisson of Fritillary Hunting

After my failed attempt to catch up with some Marsh Fritillaries a couple of weeks ago I've been keeping a keen eye on the weather, waiting for a good sunny day so I could have another crack at them. It says something about just how wet and miserable a May it's been that today, the 1st of June no less, was the first day when there was any decent sunshine at all since that last outing. Thus, despite the fact that it was a weekend, I negotiated a pass to see if I could make amends for my failed trip to Barbury Castle. 

Having done some more research I decided that the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Strawberry Banks reserve in deepest darkest Gloucestershire was probably my best bet: it looked like the closest site where I could pretty much guarantee seeing some Marsh Fritillaries. What's more there was a Pear-bordered Fritillary site close by which I could stop off at afterwards to see if I could pick up a bonus Fritillary species. The forecast was for full-on sunshine in the morning though becoming partially cloudy by the afternoon. Therefore I decided to make an early start of it to get the best of the weather and left Chateau Gnome at 8:30 on the one hour journey to the site. There were some very winding, hilly and narrow country lanes to negotiate at the end of the journey though I managed to steer the Gnome mobile safely through these only to go and ruin it all by reversing a bit too close to a wall as I parked and breaking the nearside rear light case. Doh! Putting that behind me, thanks to my Google map research I knew where the footpath was and soon found myself at the bottom of the delightful Strawberry Fields reserve.

Strawberry Banks GWT Reserve
This turned out to consist of two fields of south-facing chalkhill grassland overlooking a steeply sloping wooded valley on the opposite side of a small river that could be heard chattering away at the bottom of the valley. It was still quite early, there was dew on the grass, the whole area was bathed in wonderful sunshine and I had the whole place to myself - Bliss! I stood and savoured the scene, being most struck with the wonderful variety of flowers everywhere. There were several types of orchids as well as a whole array of others that I couldn't begin to identify though they all looked unfamiliar. Sadly such habitat just isn't that common any more and one doesn't come across many of the species that are to be found in such locations. 

One of several Orchid species there - perhaps someone can ID it for me
I started to walk along the path and soon came across my first Marsh Fritillary, taking advantage of the sunshine to get started nice an early. There were quite a few of them dotted around the place and one didn't have to look too hard to find them. I busied myself trying to take photos of them though armed with only my super-zoom camera it was always difficult to get the auto focus to lock onto the insect, especially when it was raised up on the top of a flower stem. Still in the end I managed to come up with some acceptably focused shots.

Marsh Fritillaries
As well as the Marsh Fritillaries there were a few Small Heaths and Common Blues about as well as quite a few moths. I kept an eye out for the metallic green Forester Moths though sadly I didn't spot any. After all too short a time I realised that I would have to get a move on if I wanted to check out my second site and get back home in time for lunch as I'd promised my VLW. So it was back to the Gnome mobile and back onto the narrow country lanes.

The next spot was Hailey Wood, a short ten minute drive away where Pearl-bordered Fritillaries were said to be found. All I knew was that there was supposed to be a clearing of some sort just south of the sawmill though when I arrived it was not at all obvious which way to go as the road to the mill itself was all locked up. In the end I found a chap who was living in the lodge keeper's cottage there and he gave me directions whilst his two dogs barked incessantly and somewhat insanely. I muddled my way along the tracks and bridleways until I came out behind the sawmill but there was no obvious clearing. A bit more wandering around and I noticed a well-trodden path heading off to the left of the main track. I started to follow it and it was soon obvious that the trees were much more thinly spaced here and it was indeed a sort of clearing. It wasn't long before my first Pear-bordered Fritillary hurried by. Unlike the more sedate Marsh Frits, this species seemed perpetually to be in a hurry to get somewhere else and would often zoom out of sight without settling at all. Eventually I found a couple that settled long enough to get off a couple of shots before they too hurried away.

Pearl-bordered Fritillaries
The terrain consisted of bracken, tall grass and scrub and as well as the butterflies there were quite a few blue damselflies darting around as well as various moths. The area looked rather good for deer ticks and indeed back home afterwards when I checked myself I found two of the little blighters on my legs despite wearing walking boots with my trousers tucked into my boots the whole time. I spent an enjoyable hour or so wandering about, looking for flitting Fritillaries and enjoying the sunshine and bird song.

As time was now marching on I decided to be content with the few shots that I'd managed and made my way back to the car. There I pointed the Gnome mobile in the direction of home, happy to have caught up with both species of Fritillary that I'd been after - more than making up for my disappointing previous outing.