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.

No comments: