Thursday, 4 February 2021

The Durham Run: Beating the Lockdown

As documented last month, our eldest daughter came back for Christmas (Nosterfield Lesser Yellowlegs and Snow Bunting in terms of birds seen). At the start of the new year and with Lockdown 3.0 looming on the horizon we decided that we would head back early in order to beat the Lockdown deadline. So it was that on New Year's Day we set off at around 9 a.m. to head back northwards. The roads were wonderfully empty, so much so that I trounced my previous record time for the journey - if only it was always like that! 

After unloading all my daughter's stuff and grabbing some lunch and a cup of tea I found myself with an afternoon's birding ahead of me in the North East. As usual I had done my reasearch on what was about but at this time of year it was slim pickings so in the end I opted for the long staying Northern Eider (S. m. borealis) that was overwintering at Redcar. This subspecies was not one that I knew anything about or indeed even had heard of previously but it kept flashing up on my RBA app as something that I had not seen before and this had nudged me into learning more about them. It turns out that the drakes can fairly easily be distinguished from our more usual Common Eiders by a combination of a more colourful bill that was orangey rather than the "mucus green" that Common Eider typically have and more easily by the two mini "sails" that they have on their backs - see this article for more details. That seemed like a reasonable target bird to aim for, a sub-species tick no less and it would also give me an opportunity to bird the south side of the Tees estuary, somewhere I'd not hitherto visited. So it was that I set off on the three quarters of an hour journey from Durham before arriving at Redcar beach and parking up near the bandstand landmark that was often referenced in reports of the target bird. 

On arrival, I found that in contrast to inland, the weather on the coast was blowing a gale and freezing cold. I donned all my outdoor gear and battled through the winds to the bandstand area. I found a sheltered spot near the bandstand where I could set up my scope without it being shaken about too much and started to scan. This afternoon the tide was in and that and the extreme wind meant that conditions were very choppy. I found the Eider flock but such was the chop that birds were on view for fractions of a second at a time before disappearing in the troughs for many seconds. This meant that picking out details like subtle bill colour or little back sails was really difficult. From where I was the birds were rather distant so I moved to another spot where I could shelter from the wind on the steps leading down from the road to the beach. Here I did my best to work through the fifty or so Eider that were spread along the shore in two or three flocks. I would sometimes get tricked into thinking I had the bird when a gust of wind would ruffle up the back feathers of one of the drakes a little - it was all most frustrating. A close-in Red-throated Diver was scant compensation for this frustrating search. After a good hour and a half of struggling like this I reckon that I'd definitely seen the bird at least once though it was a long way from a satisfactory view. As it started to get dark the flock disappeared from close in shore, presumably moving further out to roost, and I had to give up. 

Looking north from Redcar beach towards South Gare

With a bit of light still left I chose to drive a few miles north from Redcar to South Gare, the area on the south shore of the mouth of the River Tees. This was an interesting combination of industrial wasteland, bordered by a giant chemical works to one side, with sandy dunes to the south and a small harbour and a few outbuildings along the road leading up to the breakwater. There I parked up and had a well deserved cup of tea, watching the sun set over the chemical works on the north shore (romantic or what!?).


Sunset over the north chemical works

Then it was time to head back to Durham to spend the evening with my daughter in her student house. We'd deliberately chosen to come up so early as there wouldn't be any of her house mates back yet so we had the place to ourselves with no Covid concerns to worry about. We ordered a takeaway to be delivered and settled in for an evening of Netflix before turning in for the night.

With nothing else having turned up, my plan for the next day was to head back to Redcar to see if I could get better views of the Northern Eider. Aware that I had a long journey south back home still ahead of me I decided to head off early the next day. I awoke before daylight to find that it was snowing in Durham so after a hasty breakfast I fired up the Gnome mobile and set off in the darkness for Redcar once more. The snow soon stopped and with a much calmer forecast for the day I was looking forward to getting some better views of the Northern Eider. However, I was about a quarter of an hour into my trip when it started to snow again, this time much more heavily and thickly and suddenly driving conditions becamse much more treacherous. There was no going in the outside lane on dual carriage ways which was virgin snow, you had to stick to the inside lane where other cars had already driven. As I got to the Middlesborough ring road the snow was falling thick and fast and I started to see one or two cars broken down on the side of the road. I was just coming off a slip road which sloped down and to the left when I found myself skidding briefly on the bend. Fortunately the ABS kicked in and I was able to regain control. The worst that would have happened would have been I'd bumped into the side barrier but it was a scary moment. A few minutes later, approaching a roadabout (thankfully deserted) once again I skidded briefly as I tried to slow down. Again it was only a matter of a few moments and there was no danger in this instance but it was a surreal feeling of helplessness feeling the car slide with no control over it.

Thankfully there were no further incidents and by the time I reached the parking area at Redcar it had stopped snowing. Mercifully there was no wind to speak of and it was with some keen anticipation that I got tooled up and headed out to look for the Eider flock once more. A few early morning Turnstone were foraging on the beach before it got too crowded as I headed towards the bandstand area. I found the Eider flock easily enough and with the tide out and no wind the chop was much more manageble. Because of this it was only a matter of a few minutes before I found the Northern Eider, which was easy to pick out in the better conditions. I found that I was able to get reasonable close to the flock which was feeding just off shore and so had a go with my Superzoom camera to take some shots


You can see the much brighter bill colour in this shot...



...and the back sails were easy to pick out in the calm conditions

Northern Eider is one of four subspecies and encompasses the birds found in the Arctic regions of the North Atlantic from North East Canada through to Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. Livezey (1995) suggests that the Common Eider subspecies group should actually be promoted to four separate species: Pacific Eider (S. v-nigrum ), Northern Eider (S. borealis), Canada/American Eider (S. dresseri) and European Eider (S. mollissima). Naturally I would more than happily accept an armchair tick should this happen though in the meantime I will have to settle for a subspecies (and "insurance") tick.

I passed a pleasant hour or so admiring the Northern Eider before deciding that it was time to move on. With nothing else to do I opted to head back to South Gare to see if I could find much of interest. I was just driving along the approach road when I came across a couple of birders walking the opposite way so I wound down the window and enquired as to what might be about. They filled me in, reporting a couple of divers in the estuary and some mobile Snow Buntings along the beach. Armed with this info I parked up and went out to see what I could find.

The two divers were easy enough to pick out: a Great Northern further out and a Red-throated quite close in.

The Red-throated Diver was reasonably close...


...whereas the GND was rather distant

There were quite a few Reed Buntings loitering in the bushes near where I parked and flying back and forth to the dunes.

After a while of exploring the headland I decided to walk along the beach to see if I could find the Snow Bunting flock. I ended up walking quite some distance though never managed to find them but the scenery was pleasant enough and with the long journey home in mind I was pleased to get in some pre-emptive exercise.

The beach south of the break water

The fishermen's huts near the harbour

There was nothing more of note to be seen as I retraced my steps back to the car. There I had a snack and some tea before girding my loins for the journey back. The roads were rather snow-covered to start with at least and it was slow going sticking to the nearside lane behind the lumbering lorries. As I continued south the snow gradually disappeared and the rest of the journey home was uneventful. I arrived back mid afternoon for my usual celebratory cup of tea and a catch-up with the rest of the family. It had been a surprisingly enjoyable trip up to the North East.

South Gare Common Gull

Monday, 25 January 2021

The (Late ) Review of the Year

Once again it's taken until towards the end of January for me to get around to doing my end of year review - pretty much par for the course then. This is largely down to the fact that I'm still (mercifully) gainfully employed in these dark days so am not the man of leisure that I used to be. This time last year I was still working in London and Regents Park was my local patch. How things have changed since then and whilst I don't have the freedom to go and twitch things at the drop of a hat these days it's wonderful to be able to bird locally again.

These annual reviews are, I know, a bit of a blogging cliché these days but the truth is that I personally enjoy looking back on my past birding exploits and given how curtailed they presently are thanks to the lockdown, it's no bad thing to be given the chance to reminisce on what was such a strange year. So with out further ado, here it is in the usual multi part format.

 

Patch Birding
 

I have already done a comprehensive year review of my Port Meadow patch here so below is an executive summary. Winter was all about Caspian Gulls with a nice long-staying Barn Owl also thrown in for good measure. 


Thanks to Lockdown 1.0 starting at the beginning of the spring passage Port Meadow suddenly acquired a whole lot more patch workers: lots of Oxford locals adopted it as their exercise location and with all these extra eyes a lot more was found than usual. There were brief views of an Osprey, a Common Crane, a fly-over Tree Pipit, a calling Whimbrel and a Common Redstart that were all nice additions to the year list but not twitchable. Longer staying (or at least twitchable) were Grey Plover, Black Tern (a Patch Mega), Avocet, a breeding plumage Great White Egret, Wood Sandpiper and a Ring Ouzel (also a Patch Mega).

Breeding plumage Great White Egret

 

Skulking Ring Ouzel

Summer was all about insects and on the Odonata front a Downy Emerald and a county first micro moth were the stars. As we headed into autumn we got in on the county colonisation by Willow Emeralds and soon became the top county spot with at least six individuals seen all around the main pond. We have high hopes of this being the start of a new colony.

Mating Willow Emerals courtesy of Nicola Devine

Autumn brought a lingering Common Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher as well as a Patch first Cattgle Egret and a Patch Mega (only the second record) Glossy Ibis. We also had a Whooper Swan, a lingering female Garganey .

Cattle Egret courtesy of Andrew Siantonas

Winter was back to Caspian Gulls again with a bonus of some fly-over Hawfinches (Patch First)

By all measures it was a vintage year. The year list record was broken with a total of 135 and personally I had five Patch ticks: Common Crane, Black Tern, Ring Ouzel, Cattle Egret and Hawfinch. The Port Meadow bird of the year was the Ring Ouzel.


County Birding
 

County birding tends to go very much in fits and starts. Some years are a real struggle to see much at all of interest in the county with no possibility of a county tick, yet other years there's lots about. Fortunately, this was one of the latter. I personally had two full county ticks, a heard-only tick, a non BOU tick and a Gnome-only tick

It all kicked off in the spring when news broke of a Red-footed Falcon in a site with no general access somewhere to the north of the county. Birders being birders, a way was soon worked out to get to see the bird and so this long-standing county blocker finally fell for myself and a whole lot of other county listers.

The Red-footed Falcon

A mere week later a Hoopoe was found near Adderbury coming to a front lawn in a side street. It would often go missing for quite some time but I was lucky enough to see it within a few minutes of finally being able to go and see it after work ended. This bird is almost annually recorded in the county but usually as post factum records sent into the county recorder long after they're gone and there hasn't been a twitchable one in the county since I've been birding here.

The Hoopoe

There was a nice summer interlude when a very handsome adult Rose-coloured Starling turned up in East Challow. I chose to try for it one evening where, after a bit of a hunt it showed well enough. 

Rose-coloured Starling

In late summer a flock of no less than 9 Ruddy Shelduck turned up on the partially drained lake in Blenheim Palace in Woodstock. Now, of course Ruddy Shelduck is usually regarded as an escape when they turn up in ones or twos. After all, because of their striking looks they are a commonly kept species and most are regarded as "fence hoppers". However a flock of nine is a different matter. There are self sustaining (so Cat. C) feral populations on the continent which disperse at this time of year and this flock is almost certainly part of that process. So whilst the BOU won't consider it, to my mind it's a definite county (and also national) tick and as I don't really adhere to BOU, I'm happy to count it on my personal county list.

Some of the nine Ruddy Shelduck

In the autumn RW found an extremely elusive Dartford Warbler in a rather unassuming location along the Thames near Tadpole Bridge. Now, as I'd been away when the last twitchable bird turned up at Otmoor this was still something I needed for the county. I visited on a very windy Saturday afternoon where despite putting in a good couple of hours the best I could manage was a single distant call which sounded very much like the bird in question. The next day I went back late morning where in completely calm conditions I once again failed to see the bird but once again I heard it call - this time much closer and very dinstinctly. With TW reporting that he'd seen it that morning as well to confirm that it was still around I have put it down on my county list as "heard only". This will have to do until another twitchable one turns up and I can actually get to see it.

Many of my other good county sightings this year I've already mentioned in the Patch Birding section but there is one more to report which is when I went to Letcombe Regis to see the release scheme Great Bustard. Not in any way tickable by strict BOU standards, however, as the off-spring of a released bird it is first generation born and raised in this country. Just how many generations you need for them to be considered tickable I don't know but in the world of Gnome listing (about which I will blog more at some point) this counts somewhere in the many different categories that I have. In any event it was a strikingly handsome bird to see.



National Birding

As you would expect during the on-off lockdown restrictions of last year this was very much curtailed. In fact in total there were just two out of county twitches, two Durham runs, two funeral trips and a Cornwall summer holiday in total.

Things were very quiet at the start of the year (back in the Before Time when I was working in London) with a trip up north for a funeral of my old business partner where I managed to see a Siberian Stonechat by way of light relief from the sadness of the occasion.

Because of Lockdown 1.0 it wasn't until July that I made my first actual twitch of the year up to the banks of the River Humber to see an unusually confiding Blyth's Reed Warbler that set up territory in a small patch of reeds. An opportunity like this to see what is normally a very secretive bird was too good an opportunity to miss and indeed it showed very well.

Far Ing Blyth's Reed Warbler

Given how difficult it was to go abroad, our summer holiday was two weeks in Cornwall. I have mixed feelings about this trip: I managed two Cornish ticks in the form of a Spotted Sandpiper and several Sabine's Gulls but despite some great seawatching conditions right next door at Pendeen Watch I failed to see any Wilson's Petrel's at all despite there being lots of sightings. One of these years! In addition there were some unpleasant issues to do with an illegal campsite in the field next to our house which made for an unpleasant backdrop to the whole holiday.

My next national trip was to take my eldest daughter back up to Durham. On the way back I took the opportunity to go and see the French release scheme Lammergeier that had made the Derbyshire Peak District its home for the summer. With a bonus Red-backed Shrike on the way home it was a rewarding trip.

Red-backed Shrike

What was definitely my national birding  trip of the year was when I uncharacteristically dropped everything to go and see the Rufous Bush Chat in Norfolk. It was a very memberable weekend with Red-flanked Bluetail, Twite and Pallas's Warbler all thrown in as well. After such a difficult year it was wondering just to be able to get out and to see some great birds.


The Rufous Bush Chat


The lovely Pallas' Warbler, which showed very well

After that, nationally there was just one more trip to get daughter number 1 back from Durham before the next "Christmas" Lockdown. With little of note up in the area I elected for the long staying Lesser Yellowlegs and a Snow Bunting in picturesque scenery by way of birding entertainment.

The national bird of the year has to be the Rufous Bush Chat, not only for it's Mega (last seen 40 years ago) rarity but also for the joy of seeing some decent birds finally.


Summary

So that was my birding year last year. Given how restricted things often were it actually wasn't too bad. This year has started off with yet more restrictions so it remains to be seen just how it all pans out. To put things in perspective, just to have survived last year at all should probably count as a result and something to be thankful for. Let's hope this terrible pandemic is resolved speedily and safely.






Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Local Birds

This month there have been a couple of local birds that I've gone to see. Normally I am very focused on my local Port Meadow patch so it's actually not that often that get out elsewhere in the county. Usually, therefore, it has to be either a county tick or at least something reasonably rare to get me in the car. I don't know if it's just a case of getting fed up with the extended lockdown and the lack of variety but I made two sorties out into the wider county this month.

The first was to Letcombe Regis where one of the Salisbury Plain Release Scheme Great Bustards has taken up residence. So one Saturday morning earlier this month I drove down to the village where I found that the bird was visible from the end of a cul de sac. It was rarther distant whilst I was there though someone else told me that it had been showing down to thirty yards, which would have been a wonderful sight. Indeed, even at a distance it was an impressive bird and I passed a pleasant forty minutes or so admiring it from a distance. This was a first winter male so it was at least a bird that had been born in the wild. I don't know if his parents had both been original released birds or if either were themselves wild bred but it does make it more interesting than going to see a bird which has just been released. I don't know how many generations have to pass before release scheme birds are deemed tickable and frankly I don't really care. As regular readers know, whilst I do keep a strict BOU list, I also keep an extended Gnome Rarities Committee List and on that basis, this is a county tick.





The second outing was to see a pair of Ring-necked Ducks that had been found at Radley Gravel Pits. Thanks to a group of four that turned up at Pit 60 a few years back, this wasn't a county tick but as Radley was only twenty minutes away and I fancied a bit of an outing I thought I would go and take a look. I ended up going quite late on in the day after most people had come and gone already and as a result there were only a few others there when I arrived. The birds were on show constantly albeit at a bit of a distance so my photos weren't that great.





There has been a bit of an influx of this American duck species this season and it was good that Oxon was getting in on the action. However, the drake subsequently disgraced itself by revealing it was ringed which could well mean that it is consigned to the escapee bin. As before, though, Gnome listing is more tolerant of this kind of thing and it certainly counted as a nice year tick in my books.


Monday, 21 December 2020

Durham Post Lockdown Exodus

At the start of December with Lockdown II coming to an end my eldest daughter and I made plans about getting her home for Christmas. The Universities were doing their best to avoid accusations of exporting Covid into people's homes by having a rigorous double testing regime and with one negative test already under her belt, it looked like all would be good for my coming to fetch her back at the end of term. She was due to take her second test on the morning that I was coming to get her but given that she lived out from college and was being careful anyway I decided to risk it and set off anyway. I duly got the "all clear" phone call about two hours into the journey. 

As always, I looked around for some decent birds to drop in on en route but at this time of year it was unlikely to be anything too exciting so in the end my first port of call was a mere ten minutes off the M1 at Nosterfield NR in Yorkshire where a Lesser Yellowlegs was overwintering. Whilst I'd seen quite a few of these before (and indeed even found one once on my home Port Meadow patch) this would in fact be the first one for the Durham Run (Oh god - not another list!). To be honest my thinking was more along the lines of it not being too much of a detour and it highly likely to be easily twitched rather than anything to do with listing. The first viewing screen was a mere 30 yards from where I parked the car and so it was that on a crisp, cold but sunny morning I found myself scanning through the myriad of birds on the shallow lake. There were loads of ducks, lots of Lapwing, and handful of Dunlin and quite a few Redshank to be seen but despite giving everything a thorough grilling I couldn't initially find the bird in question. In the end I remembered that it was often reported from the Tadfield hide which was on the other side of the lake. A brisk five minutes or so later I found myself at the screen outside the hide, which was closed due to Covid restrictions. There was a viewing hole in the screen itself outside the hide but the hole was so high up that it was hard for me to see through it all. I could manage bins but it was just too high for my scope. There were only two birds on view down at this end: one was a Redshank and the other was the Lesser Yellowlegs itself. It was working its way along the shore closer and closer and I cursed the fact that I couldn't take any digiscoping photos due to the height issue. In the end I hurried back to the car to get my superzoom camera but by the time I got back it had move around to a spot midway between the two viewing points so was rather distant where ever I viewed from. So I gave up on any thoughts of a photograph and after some more scope views I retreated to the warmth of the car for some lunch and some tea from the flask


Nosterfield NR

With nothing else of particular note to tempt me for my second bird of the day I chose something more for the surrounding scenery rather than anything else. I opted for a lone Snow Bunting that was on a moorland hilltop near Stang Top. Interestingly, this was located between Hope Moor and Booze Moor, which to me pretty much summed up the second lockdown! The narrow winding road climbed through the forested area of The Stang before bursting out onto wide open moorland and some stunning scenery. The Bunting was meant to be pretty close to the county border between Durham and Yorkshire and I found a car park right next to the county boundary sign with one other car and one other person who was clearly a birder. He turned out to be a local who had just seen the Bunting flying along the road as he'd driven up. He informed me that, rather uncharacteristically for a Snow Bunting, it was a rather unapproachable bird that would flush easily when any car went by. We started down the road together and soon spotted it in the distance gathering grit by the side of the road. I took a couple of photos though it wasn't very approachable and a passing car soon afterward pushed it down the road and then away off over the moor. So my snaps were rather "record shotty".

Rubbish Snow Bunting Snaps

There were lots of  Red Grouse calling so I asked my companion if there were any local spots for Black Grouse. He told me of a nearby spot where it was possible to spot them in the distance so I went to take a look. However, despite grilling the area thoroughly I couldn't find any of them. Not that I particularly minded - I was just enjoying the stunning scenery. I really love moorland countryside - there's just something about the bleak remoteness which speaks to me. I tried to capture some of this on my iPhone though the results are less than stunning.


Some mediocre landscape photos that don't do the scenery the justice that it deserves
 


At least the Red Grouse were more cooperative

I had tenatively planned a third stop-off but I'd run out of daylight so in the end I went back to the car for some more tea and just sat there, taking in the scenery. I did one final walk along the roadside to see if the Bunting had come back but it was getting dark and cold now and I had no luck. So in the end I headed back to the car and set the coordinates for Durham. Then, with Radio 4 for company, it was back onto the M1 and into the rushhour traffic before arriving at my daughter's house just before dinner. The evening was passed in catching up, eating take-away, going for a walk and watching TV before hitting my bed, tired from my long day. 

The next day we didn't bother getting up particularly early but headed off sometime around 9 am. I decided to stop off at what would have been yesterday's third bird location, just a ten minute detour to Bishop Middleham where a Long-tailed Duck had been frequenting a small roadside lake. I left my daughter in the car whilst I walked toward the viewing point only to find that a car swerved across the road and pulled up next to me. Feeling suddenly rather vulnerable, I waited while they lowered the window whereupon I found myself being questioned by a small but rather scruffy man with a huge black eye who wanted to know directions to somewhere. I told him I had no idea and hurried on but he left his car on the wrong side of the road whilst he tried to find directions on his phone. From a distance I could see cars coming upon him suddenly on the wrong side of the road and having to break to avoid him - it was so dangerous! Eventually he must have found his location because he sped off up the road leaving me to the ducks. Sadly, there was no joy there with a miscellaneous collection of the usual stuff on the pond but clearly no Long-tailed Duck. A call on my mobile from my daughter who was getting cold, dragged me away and we were soon back on the road heading south in light traffic. The journey home was uneventful and we arrived back at Casa Gnome early afternoon for a late lunch. So a very low key trip up north but now at least the entire Gnome family was reunited in the ancestral home once again.




 

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Gnome in Norfolk

Unfortunately this year in particular I my birding is very constrained due to work commitments. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful to have work in the current climate and I know that for many people the lack of work must be a great source of worry and stress. However, it does rather limit my birding opportunities. This means that despite what has turned into a classic autumn for birding, I've been largely reduced to watching it all from the sidelines. I could only look on in envy as the Black Audi Birder went from one end of the country to the other multiple times mopping up all sorts of mega rarities in the matter of a couple of weeks.  Instead for me during the week I nip out once or twice a day to my local patch of Port Meadow. This has fortunately reflooded a month earlier than usual so I live in hope of a rare wader turning up though none has so far. At weekends, as well as family stuff, I will sometimes venture somewhere a bit further afield.

In general I find that the longer I go without any decent birding trips the more there is of a build-up of a desire to get out. Much like the build-up of other unfulfilled urges over time, the longer I go without my birding fix, the more I yearn to have it. In the end this often leads to me going on a birding trip that perhaps normally I wouldn't do but sometimes the urge just proves too much. For me this tipping point came this last weekend. I was very much feeling the lack of any decent bird trips. I had originally told my VLW that I'd like to take the weekend off for birding but then something came up on the Sunday that meant this wasn't going to be possible. So instead on Saturday morning I mooched around Port Meadow, finding very little and watching the RBA alerts about a newly discovered Rufous Bush Chat in Norfolk despondently. The first twitchable one of this species for several decades meant that the birding world was very much going bonkers over this find but I could only watch from afar. I returned home to news that the Sunday commitment had been cancelled. That changed everything and such was the build-up of my birding "needs" that I decided spontaneously to head off to Norfolk to see this great Mega myself.. A spontaneous "on the first day" twitch is something that I almost never do - what was I thinking? Much to the consternation of my VLW I hurriedly put together my stuff, sent off a booking request to a convenient AirBnB in north Norfolk, pointed the SatNav for Stiffkey and hit the road at around 12:30 pm.

I knew the route well enough and en route there were regular "still present" messages for a while though about half way there they mysteriously dried up. During a stop at a traffic light I hurriedly checked to discover that the bird was in fact still there but had now been narrowed down to subspecies. As it was now being reported as Eastern Rufous Bush Chat then it was no longer hitting my Rufous Bush Chat filter alert. Reassured I sped on, finally arriving at the King's Lynn bypass and taking the A148 towards Fakenham before getting frustratingly stuck behind a tractor for what seemed like an eternity. At this point I'd got back an "already booked" message from my prospective AirBnB so I rang my daughter on the hands-free and asked her to book me somewhere else. She duly found me a nice place near Fakenham and I asked her to book it for me. However, a few minutes later I got a call from the owner saying that due to a glitch in the matrix he'd just booked it out to someone else. There then followed a couple more calls from him and AirBnB about doing the cancellation for this and then I had to call my daughter back to get her to find me another place which she did: a cheap and cheerful place on the outskirts of King's Lynn itself. It was all finally sorted just as I was nearing my destination. I was directed off the A148 and navigated through the back roads up to the coast road and finally at around 3:45pm I was at Stiffkey turning down Green Way where I was greeted by the expected sea of cars the length of the road. As it was rather late now there were a number of people coming back and I managed to find a spot a little way down the road. The atmosphere of the returning birders seemed very relaxed so I got the impression that this was one of those "turn up and the bird will be there on view" twitches. Therefore, in a state of relative calm I tooled up and headed down the road to the saltmarsh where in the distance I could see the throng of twitchers. It was extremely muddy on the marsh - I later learnt that at high tide the marsh is partially submerged and the mass of birders feet tramping about the place can't have helped. It took getting on for 10 minutes to squelch my way to the twitch site where I was greeted with a choice of whether to go over a little wooded bridge over a creek or to view from the right-hand side on this side of the creek. In the end I chose the right-hand side where I later found that the views were worse but there were fewer people. I tentatively asked someone where to look and was directed to a sort of "hole" in the sueda on the opposite side of the creek. At "7 o'clock" to this was a sort of flat platform of twigs and there sunning itself was the bird in question. I hurriedly shot off some video before it hopped out of site. Mission accomplished - I could relax!
 



Fortunately for everyone the bird was located on the far side of a creek so was safe from flushing from over-enthusiastic photographers. Instead we were all constrained to view from a sensible distance and the bird seemed unconcerned about our presence. I subsequently have read various reports on how the bird wasn't looking that perky earlier on in the day but to me it seemed healthy enough - I guess that it must have had a chance to dry out and feed up a little. I'd also learnt that it was first found at the start of the day right back at the car park when the saltmarsh itself was still flooded by the high tide but it then relocated on the falling tide to a relatively small patch of sueda with it's creek "moat" to protect it from the marauding hoards of twitchers.The bird was appearing fairly regularly though it was somewhat skulking and after my initial video success I altogether failed to get any more footage or a photograph. Still it was very pleasant to stand there in the wonderfully remote saltmarsh scenery waiting for the bird to appear again in the late afternoon sunshine. A Lap Bunt trilled as it flew overhead. Various flocks of Brent Geese came and went, calling loudly as they did so and a few Redshank and Little Egrets were knocking about.

Fellow twitchers waiting for the bird to reappear

After a while the bird became more secretive and sightings becamse fewer with longer gaps in between. It was getting late and no doubt it was tired from its exhausting journey so was probably going to go to roost early. I found myself standing next to Penny Clark (she of the Hot Birding and Life blog) and we chatted for a while. On the other side of the bank I spotted MMcK from Cornwall though there was no one else I recognised in the crowd - I guess that the hard core twitchers from Oxon would have already been and gone by this time. A Hen Harrier flew over and headed inland - the first of this species I'd seen in quite a few years. All in all it was very pleasant and I enjoyed the large skies and emptiness of the scenery. I can see how this kind of place can get under your skin.

Stiffkey Saltmarsh in the evening - you can just see the remaining twitchers in the distance

Looking west towards Wells

Eventually I decided it was time to leave and I wandered in a contented manner back along the muddy path in the evening sunlight. Back at the Gnome-mobile I de-tooled, had a very welcome celebratory cup of tea from the flask as well as a snack before firing her up and heading towards King's Lynn. I stopped off at a supermarket for some provisions and to top up the fuel before heading on to the BnB. This turned up to be basic but clean and quiet and after a long and exciting day I spent the evening unwinding before going to sleep fairly early where my dreams were filled with mud, saltmarshes and the sound of calling birds.

Having slept ok-ish, I was breakfasted and out the door a little after 7 am the next morning. My plan was first to head to Holme-next-the-Sea to see if I could catch up with one of four (!!) Red-flanked Bluetails that were persent there the previous day. I'd previously seen this species only once before with the long-staying bird in deepest Gloucestershire in 2014 but as that was a good few years ago now, it would be good to reacquaint myself with this stunning species.

I parked up at the village car park to find a number of other birders already there and searching the bushes around the grassy area that apparently was known as the village green. Having tooled up I spoke to someone who looked like he knew what was what who informed me that one of the birds was to be seen at the back of the green, another was to be found along the other side of the row of firs that bordered the green and the other two were on the golf course in amongst the Hawthorns somewhere. I initially decided to try for the one at the back of the green and duly joined the modest line of fellow birders all concentrating on this section. While we waited a few Pink-feet flew over calling loudly, always a loverly sound!

Norfolk Pink-feet

After a while of nothing happening I decided to have a wander about to see what else was about. Someone had already reported one of the other birds somewhere else so I thought I'd try my luck with one of the others. There only seemed to be a few birders working the other side of the firs so I headed off onto the scrubby area next to the golf course. I eventually came across some fellow birders who'd seen one fly across a gap in the Hawthorn a short while ago but whilst I was talking to them a couple of lady birders nearby motioned that they'd just seen one in flight so I headed over there instead. Predictably it had disappeared into the scrub and after a little while the two finders headed on and I chose to follow them a little way, partially just to get a sense of the lie of the land. I wandered along the path for a few minutes where I came upon a few birders staring intently at some bushes. "What have you got?" I enquired excitedly only for them to reply "it's just a Dunnock". Not the answer I was looking for and I decided to head back to where the Bluetail had last been seen. There I found out that I'd missed a reasonable showing and decided to stay put and stick it out in this location.

Waiting for the Bluetail to show

It was very birdy where I was. There were loads of thrushes flying about, mostly Fieldfares and quite regularly a Brambling or two would fly over making its wheezy call. More skeins of Pink-feet would regularly go by and various finches including some Redpolls would zip past at regular intervals. If only Oxon were this bird filled! After about three quarters of an hour of waiting the Bluetail briefly popped out onto a branch in a rather dark area under some Hawthorns before being promptly chased off by a Robin - a regular occurrence here apparently. Shortly after that it flew out and into a nearby tree where it gave partially obscured views for several minutes until once again a Robin saw it off. So no photographic opportunities but it was great to be able to reacquant myself with this blue-tailed gem and I decided that it was time to move on.

I'd just got back to the car when news came up of a Pallas's Warbler nearby at Thornham Harbout "in some bushes by the car park". Whilst this seemed like a rather unlikely location for a Pallas's it was on my list of places to visit today anyway in order to try and see some Twite so I made the short hop to Thornham and parked up at the first car park. There I met another couple of birders who were equally baffled by the RBA news. I decided to walk towards the further car park by the sluice gate and when I got there I could see a few birders standing around a modest clump of sueda. Surely this couldn't be it, could it? It turned out it was! Creeping around in this tiny area of cover was one of these stunning warblers. It was constantly on the move and you could track it by who around the bush was staring intently through their bins at the time or trying to take photos. After initially trying to follow the bird I eventually decided to stay put and let it come to me where I was eventually rewarded with some superb point-blank views though I managed to fluff the best photographic opportunity. I loved watching this stripy gem as it crept about in the sueda - it was one of the highlights of my whole weekend.

 

 

 

 

The Pallas's Warbler

Having eventually had my fill I decided to wander along the embankment a little to see if I could find any Twite. I soon heard some calling only to find it was someone trying to lure them using playback. There wasn't much along the track apart from a large flock of Blackwits on the flooded field and a Grey Plover in flight. I eventually headed back to the car park where I found someone taking photos of a Common Redstart standing on a post.

Common Redstart

Someone told me that the Twite had been hanging out nearby on the same posts so I decided to wait around about a bit longer. I met up with PCl and MS from Cornwall, who'd driven down overnight and having seen the star attraction at Stiffkey already were now enjoying the Pallas's as it crept about. They too were interested in the Twite and told me about a Great Grey Shrike at Warham. This species of Shrike is actually probably one of the rarest in Cornwall so it had been a top priority for them though as it's pretty much annual in Oxon I was less interested. After more wandering I heard a Twite calling and found a pair on the same rotting wooden posts. I put PCl on it and we took photos as they posed beautifully for us. I really love the understated beauty of Twite - for some reason they're one of my favourite birds.

 


Twite-tastic!


A random Curlew

I now felt that I'd "done" Thornham and it was time to move on. The final item on my itinery for today was a return visit to Stiffkey to get second helpings of the Rufous Bush Chat. It took a surprisingly long half an hour to get from Thornham over to Stiffkey but eventually I was pulling up in Green Way again and heading across the muddy saltmarsh back to the same location as yesterday. This time I chose to go over the bridge which was the right thing to do as the bird decided to spend most of its time feeding in the area behind the main sueda clump which would have been impossible to see from the other viewpoint. 
 

 
The birds was on show regularly though as it was keeping low and moving constantly it was almost impossible to photograph. In the end I gave up and just enjoyed watching the star attraction and soaking up the atmosphere of the location. A flock of six circling Red Kites passed directly overhead.
 
Three of the six Red Kites

As time was marching on and I didn't want to be back too late, eventually I had to tear myself away and head back to the car where I had some much-needed lunch and tea from the thermos. Then it was time to fire up the Quattro and head off for the long slog home. I arrived back at Casa Gnome at around 5pm, tired but happy from my Norfolk birding adventure.