Regular readers will know that I usually head down to Cornwall at this time of year. Last year I held fire until there was something really good to tempt me with an Alpine Swift finally tipping the balance. This year once again I was hanging back to see how things were panning out and certainly so far it's been a bit so-so down there. For sure there have been Wrynecks and Yellow-broweds as usual but as I've got more experienced they no longer have quite the wow factor that they once did for me. My VLW and I discussed our plans and we decided that we'd probably head down to Cornwall for half term at the end of the month and with one trip down there already planned I therefore decided that unless something pretty good turned up, I'd stay here and perhaps make a few sorties elsewhere should I be so tempted.
With this all decided, I was biding my time here in Oxford and keeping an eye on national bird news. Things were really hot up in the north east and I'm really kicking myself for not making the long slog up to Bempton in Yorkshire for the Eastern Crowned Warbler together with a supporting cast of Arctic and Greenish Warblers. It's just such a long way though that in the end I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. But thinking about this had rather got me in the mood for an outing so when a Radde's Warbler starting being reported regularly in north Norfolk at Holkham I starting to think about a trip over there instead. Now Radde's can be really skulky buggers and by all accounts this was an extreme example with "tho elusive" tacked on to every RBA message but it was being reported several times every day so in the end I decided that it would probably be OK and, rather at the last minute, I put together a plan, booking some very cheap last minute accommodation and setting off on Monday night after dinner. I was familiar with the route and it passed smoothly enough and finally I turned off the A148 into some minor back roads as I approached the village of Langham where I was staying for the night. As I drove along I was surprised to find a small covey of Red-legged Partridges in the middle of the road, obviously enjoying the comparative warmth of the road surface in the cold night. I found the village and managed to locate the accommodation area despite the lack of instructions on my booking e-mail. My property was one of these unmanned ones where you have a key code to let you in. There was only one other car there and I soon found the occupants trying but failing to get into what I thought was my room. They then headed across the courtyard where they managed to get in there but I was having no luck with my key code at all so in the end I rang the emergency number and someone tried to talk me through it though it just wouldn't work so eventually they put me in another room. This turned out to be a very spartan affair with just a simple double bed, a TV, two towels, a kettle, two mugs and a spoon. There weren't even any tea bags or milk and the bathroom had no soap or anything. Still it was a bed for the night and what else did you expect for just £20 so after giving my VLW a ring to let her know that I'd arrived safely I was soon sound asleep.
As usual I awoke earlier than I planned and eventually got up at around 6 a.m. and was out the door by 6:30 heading out on the thirty minute drive over to Holkham. Once again there were lots of sleepy birds on the roads and I had to drive carefully through the half light to avoid hitting them. Passing through one village I surprised a Tawny Owl which flapped off in a huff. I eventually arrived at Lady Anne's Drive and parked up, paying the extortionate £6.50 for a day's parking there. There were a couple of other birders there as well and we soon found that we were all there for the Radde's. One of them was a local and knew the area well though he hadn't actually tried to see this bird before so didn't have any detailed knowledge about the twitch area itself. As we headed off we enjoyed views of a Barn Owl hunting over a neighbouring field and a Cetti's Warbler heralded the start of another day with its strident song. It was a walk of about half an hour along the track bordering the pine forest to the famous "crossroads" and then a short distance beyond that to where we found what was the Radde's reedbed. This turned out to be longer than I was anticipating and brought up the question of whether there was a hot spot area that should be watched or whether it could be anywhere with the reedbed. Without any knowledge about this the three of us just did the best we could. The problem was that the reeds very dense so it was hard to see anything moving in them at all and anything that was feeding at the top of them would be hard to see due to their height. We listened carefully and heard the occasional "tack" though so many things could be making that sound and anyway Radde's to my ear make more of a squeaky wader-like call than a Dusky-esque "tack". Time passed and there were some dark juvenile Chiffies working their way along the tops of the reeds which kept us on our toes but apart from regularly hearing Yellow-browed Warblers calling in the trees there was little reward for our vigil
More people started arriving until there were perhaps a dozen of us there. One chap suddenly claimed that he'd seen it and took a few photos which he showed me. Whilst it was a warbler they were of such poor quality that it could have been almost anything. He said though "that it was definitely a Radde's, it had a good black eye-stripe" which somewhat surprised me. I've had experience in the past at Porthgwarra of someone claiming a Radde's and I, along with several other people, traipsed over to take a look only to find a very pale northern Willow Warbler?!?! People often seem to focus in on the strangest features for this species. Now if he'd said "definitely a Radde's, it was a deep chocolate colour with a really strong supercilium" then I'd have been more impressed, but who knows what he saw. Anyway, the upshot of this was that all the assembled birders then focused right in on the tiny bit of reeds where he'd seen it and left the rest of it uncovered. I too watched the area for a while before trying to cover the rest of the reedbed single handed. The "finder" soon left and other people gradually drifted away. By about 11 a.m. I too had had enough and was developing "reed blindness" so I decided to head off on a walk to stretch my legs. With a Great Grey Shrike having been reported over in the dunes between the west end of Holkham pines and the Burnham Overy boardwalk this would make a nice little diversion as well as giving me a decent walk and chance to explore the area further. It was very pleasant walking through the woods, listening out for occasional Yellow-browed. On my journey a very close but hidden Cetti's Warbler attracted the interest of a pair of birders and a couple of locals were chatting about the comparative lack of Rares given the great prevailing easterlies. Eventually I was out of the pines and into the dunes.
|Rainbow over the dunes|
The weather had suddenly got very warm and as I was well dressed up as protection from the dawn cold I was now feeling rather hot and I had to take off several layers. I wandered over to a neighbouring peak where I could see several people scanning the landscape, no doubt searching for the Shrike so I went to join them. More people arrived including someone who recognised me from one of my blogs and it was he who managed to find the Shrike - perched on top of a distant Hawthorn. It stayed there for a few minutes in the obliging way that Shrikes do before flying off to a more distant tree.
|The obliging Great Grey Shrike|
Pleased at having finally seen something of interest I pondered what to do next. News came through on RBA of an Olive-backed Pipit still present at Wells this morning. "Hmmm, that might be worth seeing" I thought and decided to head back to towards the car and to think about it en route. I stopped off at the reedbed for another brief watch though I was now the only person there and I soon gave up my half-hearted attempted. I met another birder and we got chatting as we walked back. He was a local so I quizzed him on where at Wells the OBP might be and how long it would take to walk there from where we were. The answer was a good half an hour to get there from Lady Anne's Drive and then there would be a long slog back as well so in the end I decided to take the car and to drive over there. Having been given detailed instructions on where to park and where to go, I headed off on the few minutes drive to Wells.
I parked up in the large car park and headed through the kissing gate where a couple of returning birders soon directed me along the path where apparently "there would be a load of people who would soon sort me out". This sounded rather promising so I hurried on to find a gathering of about a couple of dozen birders all staking out a tiny bit of scrub.
|The Olive-backed Pipit was somewhere in there!|
Disappointingly it turned out that rather than the bird being on show and being grilled at close quarters by one and all, instead it had last been seen an hour and a half ago before going to ground somewhere in this tiny area that we were all watching. I joined the vigil though I jokingly said to my neighbour that after that length of time really someone should just walk across so that we could all see it. However, we never needed to resort to this as within five minutes suddenly a bird flew up from the grass in front of us and over our heads into the wood behind us. With a pipity jizz, pale finely-streaked underside and a darkish back it was clearly the bird but to my amazement the assembled birders watched it fly off and then went back to grilling the grass! Over the next ten minutes though the penny gradually dropped and one by one they all started to drift away.
I meanwhile decided to have an explore of the area just to acquaint myself of this famous birding location. The Dell itself turned out to be a large clear area surrounded by a steep bank and lots of mostly Silver Birch trees. The centre was a bit marshy with some reeds in places and the remains of what would have been some rather nice flowers a couple of months earlier with now just a few Knapweeds and some Selfheal still clinging on. It looked like a great spot and I wandered around the edge grilling the trees and turned up a Chiffy for my troubles.
|The famous Dell at Wells Wood|
I explored the environs a bit more but with time marching on and having already seen the birding highlight of the area, albeit only briefly, I headed back towards the car. I passed on my parking ticket to someone else who'd just arrived, de-tooled and "headed out on the highway, looking for adventure..." or, more accurately, headed home carefully whilst trying to fight off my tiredness.
On the way back I had to endure various gripping messages from RBA including an Arctic Warbler and a Radde's Warbler both at the Dell as well as the wretched Radde's at Holkham again. I must admit that I swore long and profusely at that last one though when I got back home and was able to scrutinise the messages more closely it turned out that the message said "100 yards east of the crossroads" so either the location had been mis-reported or the bird had moved. What's more, both the Dell Arctic and Radde's were only posted once so given the number of birders who were crawling all over the area looking for the Pipit either one or two of them had got lucky or just plain "trigger happy" and I suspect that had I stayed (not that that had really been an option) I'd have not seen either bird. In the end I was rather philosophical about it all. The Holkham Radde's was clearly a right bugger to see and there was a limit to how long I was going to stare at some reedbeds for a brief and poor glimpse of a bird even if it would have been a new one for me. In fact I'd been chatting at the OBP twitch to a birder who told me that he'd spent six hours the previous day at the Holkham site for three seconds of views of the Radde's - that's elusive by any standards! In the end, despite disappointment over my main target, I'd managed to see a Grey Grey Shrike and an Olive-backed Pipit by way of compensation and had also had a chance to acquaint myself with an area of north Norfolk that I'd not visited previously which I was pleased to have done. No doubt I'll eventually see a Radde's and it had been a nice enough day out so I still allowed myself a celebratory cup of tea on my return to Casa Gnome.