Sunday, 20 December 2015

Durham Again

It was time to fetch Daughter 1 back down from Durham from the end of her University term already. Looking back, this time last year I had been lucky with an en route Blythe's Pipit followed by a trip out west to the snow-covered moors for some Black Grouse. That had been a good trip - what was I going to see this time? As usual, I'd been keeping a keen eye on the birdage up in the North East for the preceding week or so but sadly there wasn't much going on there at present. There was an over-wintering Long-billed Dowitcher up in Northumberland which had caught my eye and there were one or two other bits and pieces in the neighbourhood so in the absence of anything better I decided to try for this on the way up. I say "on the way up" though of course I would have to overshoot Durham by about an hour in order to get to Northumberland. What's more with it being just about the shortest day of the year, daylight was going to be an issue and I wouldn't have more than two or three hours at most. Still I couldn't come up with anything better so this is what I decided to do. As for the next morning there were a couple of Waxwing sites in Jarrow and Gateshead which I thought I'd try for. That was the plan anyway.

The week leading up to my departure had been a very busy one at work and this excessive workload had meant that I'd not been sleeping that well so I found myself in a rather sleep-deprived state as I set off at my usual time of 8 a.m. on Friday morning, feeling that really I could do with several more hours in bed. Still, if I wanted to have any daylight left once I got to Northumberland I couldn't really hang around at all. Things progressed smoothly enough until around about junction 28 on the M1 when ominous signs warned of a 30 minute delay up ahead. I pulled into some services to plan an alternative route and in the end went off piste, detouring around Mansfield and joining up with the A1(M) further up. This plan did mean that I managed to avoid the jams though it added about 30 minutes on to my journey time anyway so I didn't actually save any time in the end. I sped onwards along the familiar route northwards which seemed to be taking for ever in my tired state. Finally at around 1:30 p.m. I arrived in the sleepy Northumbrian backwater of Cresswell and drove along the coastal road, admiring the sandy dunes and the sea on my right until I came to the turn-off for the hide that overlooks the Cresswell Pond nature reserve, the temporary home of the Dowitcher,

There was one other car parked there as I got out, stretched my legs and marvelled at just how mild it was even up here in the "frozen" north. This December weather we're having is just insane! I got my gear together and ambled the short distance up to the farm and then down the side track that lead to the hide. The locals had put up all sorts of ersatz feeders along the path, made out of old plastic bottles and there were loads of finches taking advantage of the food. Within the hide I found a couple of locals staking out the pond forlornly. It turned out that they'd not seen the Dowitcher at all themselves though someone had reported it earlier on. Humph! I thought. At least this wasn't something that I desperately wanted to see though it was still the headline bird on this northern tour that I'd cobbled together and for it to do the first no show in several weeks just on the day that I came up was a bit rude of it. 

The view from the Cresswell Pond hide

I settled down to look out of the hide window. It was a very nice looking pond, not too big so that you could see the birds on the far shore comfortably. There was a good-looking sand spit on the right on which there was a sizeable flock of Lapwing interspersed with the occasional Redshank. Over on the far side were Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and a single Goldeneye with more Lapwings and Redshank though no sign of the Dowitcher. I did a detailed scan all the way around the pond twice before satisfying myself that it wasn't on show at present. Given that I only had limited daylight left there was no point in hanging around so I hurried back up the path to the car disturbing a smart Tree Sparrow from the feeders as I went. I then drove the short distance to the other end of the Pond where there was a car park. I had a quick check from this end though there was still no sign of the Dowitcher, so it was on to part two of my tour of this area. This was a short coastal walk along the dunes to the neighbouring farm where the cattle were fed - I'd been told that this could be a good spot for Twite. It was a very pleasant ten minute stroll along the top of the dunes and I admired the sandy beach and the relatively calm seascape.

Northumbrian coastline
I found the cattle feed area though the only finches I could find were five Chaffinches. No luck there and I retraced my steps back to the car. In the car park I met a couple out birding who'd reported that they too weren't having much luck today having missed the Water Pipit at East Chevington, some nearby Iceland Gull and now the Dowitcher here at Cresswell. Sitting as I was at nought out of two so far on my birding targets I sympathised with them. I couldn't linger however as the daylight was slipping away so it was on to site number three.

This was no more than a few minutes up the road at Druridge where there was supposed to be a large flock of Pink-footed Geese. I had no trouble locating these and pulled up by the roadside to admire the vast numbers as they grazed away on the lush grass in the field. I'd been told that there'd been three Bean Geese reported in amongst them yesterday though I had neither the time nor the energy to search through several thousand Pinkies for what would be remarkably similar looking Beanies. I took a quick snap with my camera and then it was back in the car and onwards to my final birding destination of the day.

Pink-footed Geese
My final destination was East Chevington where there was a Water Pipit in residence (the one the other two birders had failed to see) and yesterday there'd also been a Lapland Bunting though there'd been no report of it today at all. This site was just ten minutes up the road which was just as well as by now the light was starting to fade. I got out of the car and hurried down the track towards the pools where I guessed the Pipit might be hanging out. There I met a couple of birders coming the other way who reported that the Pipit hadn't been seen in about an hour though there was a nice flock of thirty or so Twite at the mouth of the burn. I soon found this flock though regretted leaving my scope in the car and decided to hurry back to get it so that I could do it justice. That was another ten minutes wasted and by now it was rather dark. Still I did get some great views of these lovely understated Finches in the end and even managed to shoot some video though the wind and the darkness meant that it didn't come out as well as I'd hoped.

Twite in the darkness

By now the darkness had defeated me. I wandered back towards the car, munching on a sandwich and watching the flocks of Starlings throwing some shapes as they prepared to roost. Then it was back in the car and I decided to retrace my steps back to Cresswell on the off chance that the Dowitcher was now on show. Once more I stopped off to say hello to the Pink-foots and then it was back to the hide where the incoming tide had pushed out all the birds onto the shoreline. I scanned as best I could though it was basically dark by now and I had to admit to defeat. So I'd managed to see just two out of the four of my target species with the Water Pipit and the Dowitcher having given me the slip but I'd really enjoyed the close views of the Twite so I was content enough. I drove a short distance along the road to a café that I'd noticed along the road which thankfully was still open so I treated myself to a nice cup of tea and some Carrot Cake. It had been my first time birding up in Northumberland and I must say that I rather enjoyed the scenery and wildness of it all. It was definitely somewhere to come back to some day.

After that it was back down to Durham to rendezvous with my daughter. By now it was dark and there was some rush hour traffic, particularly around the Tyne Tunnel so in my tired state I took it nice and slow and arrived safely at her house an hour later. She and her housemates were all rather tired from a hectic week of end of term partying so they were all having a quiet night in. We ordered a takeaway curry and watched stuff on telly or on-line. By 10 p.m. I was in bed and soon fast asleep.

The next day I still woke up far too early (I was building up quite a sleep deficit by now) and contemplated what to do. As I mentioned at the start, I'd originally been intending to go and search for some Waxwings but the truth was that they'd not been reported for several days now with no mention of them at all yesterday so in the end I decided to head over towards Hartlepool to look for the first winter drake Surf Scoter that was hanging out off-shore at Seaton Carew. This was only half an hour away from Durham and should be a fairly straight-forward sortie. I set off at around 8 a.m. (after all there was no point in getting there too early) and some half an hour later I arrived outside the Staincliffe Hotel where the bird was supposed to be. There I found a birder scoping the sea from his car though he'd just started and hadn't seen it so far. I set up my scope and in the reasonably windy conditions I tried to locate the bird. A flock of Common Scoter flew in and landed close by and I soon picked out the Surfie from in amongst them though it was difficult to get a decent view as the scope was bounced around by the wind. I told the other birder where it was and decided that he had the right idea and went to get my car. From this sheltered vantage point it was much easier to make things out and I was soon enjoying some good views of the bird along with a couple of Velvet Scoter and thirty or so Common's. It was nice to see all three species there in one go.

By far the best photo of this bird that I've seen, taken by Martyn Sidwell (c)
As it was rather dark and the birds were still reasonably distant I didn't bother trying to photograph the Surfie and after about three quarters of an hour I decided to head back to Durham, stopping off to pick up some fuel on the way. My daughter, together with another house mate who it turned out also wanted a lift, were both more or less ready so it was that at around 10:30 a.m. we set off back down south. The motorway wasn't too bad and with just one stop off for sandwiches we arrived back mid afternoon safe and sound. We stopped off briefly in Summertown to drop off the friend and to pick up a bit of shopping before heading back to Casa Gnome for a very welcome cup of tea. With the family now once more at its full compliment we decided to sort out the Christmas tree which we'd been holding off on until Daughter 1 had returned, so we passed the rest of the day chatting, decorating the tree and just chilling. It had been a quiet albeit enjoyable trip up to the North East where I'd seen some nice birds and got to know more of this part of the country.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Norfolk in December

It had been several weeks since my last out-of-county sortie up to Chesterfield for my thirty seconds of Crag Martin views and I was starting to get that familiar urge again. In this case the object of my attention was a long-staying Pallid Harrier that seemed to be over-wintering at Snettisham in Norfolk. Now, it's been a good year for this once über-rare Harrier, with one at Burpham in Sussex staying for a couple of weeks as well as several other birds throughout the country this year. However, somehow or other up until now I'd never been free or they were just too far away for me to be tempted. Still, this one in Norfolk seemed pretty well nailed down with it being reported several times on a daily basis without fail so I thought that I'd give it a go. Indeed, I was originally intending to go last week but it was just too busy at work or the forecast was too windy and I never went in the end. However, this Monday (generally my preferred twitching day of the week) the forecast was for calm and mild weather so it was game-on for another Gnome outing.

As regular readers will know, I'm not a huge fan of the early morning departure so instead I opted to do my usual trick of heading up on Sunday night and staying at a B&B or hotel nearby. I managed to find a nice hotel which had been heavily discounted (apparently no one wants to stay on the outskirts of Kings Lynn on a Sunday night) and so it was that after dinner I headed off from Casa Gnome into the comparatively deserted Sunday roads along the familiar route to Norfolk. Fortunately Snettisham is on west side of the north Norfolk coast - a great relief as the A149 can be rather tortuous and it takes far longer than you think to get to places along it. I made good time and in about two hours and forty minutes I arrived at my clean and comfortable hotel and settled in for the evening.

The next morning I awoke (far earlier than required as usual) and eventually got up, showered and was out and on the road by 7:30 a.m. Judging from RBA reports, around 10 a.m. was usually the time that the Harrier was seen in the morning so I was in no particular hurry. To pass the time I stopped off at the Wolferton triangle to see if I could score a Golden Pheasant. However, it was by now lighter than I had anticipated and there were lots of cars roaring along the road - not conditions suitable for a shy and retiring pheasant and I gave up after less than ten minutes. Instead I made my way towards Snettisham, detouring into Dersingham to pick up a sandwich at the local Budgens. As I returned to the car in the car park a long skein of Pink-foots hurried over - very Norfolky! I headed on to the reserve, going (more by accident than design) the scenic route via Snettisham itself. En route I passed a small pond with a couple of resident Egyptian Geese, again something that I associate with past visits to this part of the country.

As I drove along the turn-off into the RSPB car park at Snettisham a few Partridges wandered across the road and I was very pleased to see that they were Greys rather than Red-legged. Embarrassingly, this was a personal year tick for what has sadly become far too rare a bird these days. I parked up next to three other cars and got ready. It was amazingly mild today though as it was such an exposed location I still decided to dress up warmly just in case. I set off on the familiar yomp along the path towards the shoreline where I was soon gazing out across the vast vista of the estuary mud flats. The tide was right out on the horizon but there were still birds dotted about in places with Mallard, Shelduck, Wigeon, Redshank and Curlew all to be seen and a flock of several thousand Golden Plover wheeling around acrobatically overhead and throwing shapes almost like a Starling roost. I met a couple coming back the other way who were admiring the Plovers though they didn't know what they were so I helped them out. A family of Brent Geese were loitering by the shore of the nearest creek and some straggler Pink-foot flocks were were going over periodically.

I walked on, starting to feel over-dressed in all my gear so I undid a few zips and cooled off. It was a remarkable distance down to the southern end of the last of the three pits and so it was getting on for three quarters of an hour after I'd first set off that I finally approached the viewing area. I could see a couple of birders in the distance (that accounted for the three other cars then) who seemed to be viewing something intently (always a good sign!). I quickly looked over in that direction to see a Harrier briefly appear in view from behind a hillock at quite a close distance of about 50 yards. With those long narrow Monty-like wings there was no doubting what it was - bingo, the Pallid Harrier was in play! I hurried over to where the other two were and we all watched the bird which by now had shot past us out towards the shore where it was quartering backwards and forwards more distantly. As I watched it I reflected that Pallid's (and Monty's) really do have such a distinctive wing shape - they look so different from Hen's. We watched as it then flew to the right and landed on a branch a couple of hundred yards away. Needing no further invitation we moved nearer to get a better view. One of the two others was a big lens photographer who hurried ahead whilst I chatted with the scope wielding birder who said that the Harrier had just at that moment appeared for the first time so I'd clearly timed my visit to perfection. We got down to a reasonable distance and watched as the bird preened vigorously. I shot some video (which sadly later turned out to be out of focus) and fired off a volley of digiscoped shots whilst it preened, hoping that one or two would turn out OK and luckily I caught one or two with it actually posing nicely

 After a few minutes the bird took to the wing again and flew right in front of us before dipping down over the pit, putting up all the Lapwings in the process and then disappearing down below the other side of the sea wall and out of sight. From all that I'd read on the internet, I couldn't really have asked for better views - I'd been expecting much more crappy glimpses of it quartering over the distant salt marsh whereas this had been really superb. Result!

With the Harrier already in the bag and the time just after 9 a.m. I decided to head back and the other birder came with me. We got chatting and it turned out that he lived in Coventry but had a house in Hunstanton that he and his wife liked to come down to regularly. He'd been coming to Norfolk for years and as we watched more Pink-foots going overhead, he explained how they roost on the estuary where they're safe from predators (mostly foxes) unless it's a clear night with a moon when the foxes can easily be seen in which case they'll carry on grazing on the fields.

Sea Spurge
We met various other birders coming the other way now, presumably all heading down for the 10 a.m. showing. Back at the car park we parted company and I contemplated what to do next. As part of my pre-trip research I'd compiled a list of other possible birds to see. On my list were three Shorelarks and some Twite at Thornham Harbour, a Rough-legged Buzzard at Choseley near Titchwell and an Iceland Gull on the Great Ouse in Kings Lynn. In the end I decided to start off at Thornham (partly because I'd never been there before) and then to move on to the Buzzard afterwards, before stopping in on the Iceland Gull on the way home.

Snettisham car park Egyptian Goose
I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed off along the A149 towards Thornham. Predictably I got stuck in a long line of traffic that was behind a slow moving large lorry so we made rather sedate progress. On the way I had a glimpse in a hedge of what to me really looked like a Ring Ouzel. I know that one was seen in Norfolk the previous day so it's not entirely out of the question but sadly I never saw it well enough to be sure. Eventually the Sat Nav app told me to turn off down an innocuous side road and before I knew it I was out on a small bumpy track that lead down to a flint-covered barn by the side of a tidal creek with a few moored boats in. It was all very picturesque in a rather overcast melancholy sort of way.

Thornham Harbour
There were quite a few cars parked up in the small car park so it was clearly a popular place. I got out, tooled up and wandered over to a couple who were scoping the distant estuary. It turned out that they reckoned that they could see the three Shorelarks from here so I had a go at scoping myself though at least one of the birds that they were getting excited about looked to me like a Skylark though perhaps I was looking at the wrong bird. After a while I got bored and went for a little wander along the sea wall a short distance where one had a better vantage point. To walk out to where the Shorelarks were located would have taken the best part of an hour so I decided to hang around and see if I could catch up with the Twite. There were loads of small birds buzzing around and when I managed to see them well enough they always turned out to be Linnets. Another couple turned up, wanting to see the Twite and we searched together for a while before they decided to head off along the sea wall. I mooched about a bit, enjoying the estuary sights and sounds before returning to my original vantage point by the car park where there was now a new birder looking. I joined him and eventually I managed to pick out the three Shorelarks - clearly seeing their head patterns lit up during a period of sunshine.

I carried on my Twite search and eventually spotted a few interesting birds down by the creek near the moored boats. When I finally got my brain in gear I twigged that they were in fact Twite that I was looking at though unfortunately, they flew off before I was able to get a photo of them. Instead I took some snaps of the local Curlew and Redshank that were exploring the various creeks.

In the end I spent far longer at Thorham than I had intended but it was such a nice place that I was happy to while away my time there. I had most of my packed lunch and decided not to bother with the Choseley Rough-legged Buzzard but instead to start off homewards and to pop in for the Iceland Gull en route so this is what I did.

Thornham vista
In Kings Lynn after a brief hiccup where the Sat Nat tried to direct me through a private freight yard, I managed to navigate myself down a side road past all sorts of industrial units and factories until I got to the shore of the Great Ouse. There I met up with a birder who'd been there for several hours photographing the Iceland Gull though he couldn't see it at present. I got out my scope and grilled the distant gull flock on the far side of the river but to no avail. Another pair of birders turned up and after a while they found it around the corner loafing on the bank on our side of the river. We all hurried over where we were treated to great views of it as it loafed around, unconcerned by our attention.

Iceland Gull - such lovely looking birds

After getting my fill I ambled back to the car, finished off the last of my lunch and then decided to head off home. I managed to get only a little lost in navigating myself out of Kings Lynn but after that the journey was uneventful and with Radio 4 to keep me company the time passed quickly enough. At 4 p.m. I was back home at Casa Gnome ready for a welcome cup of tea and to bask in the warm glow of another successful outing.