Monday, 15 September 2014

From Horsey to Happisburgh

There had been a steady run of light easterlies for the past few days but clear skies meant that birds were probably passing over rather than stopping off in Norfolk. Nonetheless Nick and I decided to try the east coast early on Sunday morning so we hit the road at 6.20am reaching Horsey Gap car-park just around 7am. Things looked promising when we picked up two Common Redstarts within the first one hundred yards with a Whinchat present in the same area. One posed reasonably well for photos in the early morning light but that was as good as things got really.

One of two Common Redstarts, Horsey Gap, Norfolk

We walked as far as the pipe dump but apart from two more Whinchats and a flyover flava Yellow Wag, that was it really.
We returned to the car park and took some coffee before heading east along the Nelson's Head track. Here we had up to six Wheatears and two more Whinchats before deciding at the metal container to stop and head back. At least this Wheatear posed obligingly before we left the area.

Wheatear, Horsey Gap / Nelson's Head track, Norfolk
Back at the car-park Nick noted a report on Birdguides of an Olive-backed Pipit at nearby Winterton south dunes. Seemed a bit early but daft not to check given how close we were. We arrived at Winterton, however a brief discussion with the single observer was less than convincing so we quickly departed the area.
Given that birds were being reported from Great Yarmouth Cemetery we thought it would be worthwhile doing a quick look at Caister on sea cemetery. Neither of us had birded this spot before but Nick had heard of migrants being present in previous years. However, on arrival it looked less than promising. This presumed Hooded x Carrion hybrid was the best on offer.

Hooded x Carrion hybrid ??
At Great Yarmouth Cemetery we walked the northern section and met another birder who had earlier picked up a male Redstart, Tree Pipit, Garden Warbler, Pied Fly and Spotted Fly. We strolled around both north and south sections and never had as much as a movement in the bushes. So this means one of two things, either Nick and I are totally useless birders (hope not and definitely not in Nick's case) or the strong anti-cyclonic weather means that birds drop into the cemetery off the sea, feed up and rest for a few hours before moving on again. Hopefully the latter if the conditions favour it.
We toyed with heading home via Cantley to look for the Pec Sand but loath to leave the east coast when the afternoon was looking like birds were arriving (RB Flys and Yellow-broweds were beginning to appear up the coast), we decided to try Happisburgh. I hadn't been there before and while we failed to turn up anything, it looks like a good spot for migrants early morning after east winds and a night of rain. There would appear to be a lot of cover further back off the first line of sycamores, but migrants just in off the sea may hold for a while in these trees to rest, feed and re-orientate. So I figure that with the right conditions Happisburgh would be a good spot to start from early on an October morning before heading either north or south along the east coast depending on what is being found. Sadly, Happisburgh sits on sandy cliffs and is slowly falling into the sea as with several places along the east Norfolk coast. We called it a day just as the road came to an end!

The cliff road at Happisburgh, Norfolk

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Winterton and Nelson's Head Track

Not the day I was hoping for. It began full of promise but ended with a whimper.
I was up at 5am, had the dog walked and had arrived at Winterton for 6.30am. With a little hlep from Nick Watmough, I located the site for the Greenish Warbler, but it had gone. A relatively clear night and a suitable airstream meant there appeared to have been  a clear-out. Greenish would have been a UK tick, I've seen two in Ireland and several in Latvia. This photo of one taken in the back garden of my late mum in law's house is my only ever shot of one.

Greenish Warbler, Jurmula, Latvia - June 2012
Back at Winterton, there were decent numbers of Common Whitethroat, Blackcaps and Phylloscs knocking around, a fly-over Hobby chasing hirundines was highlight of the morning.
I tried for the Wryneck on the north dunes by the totem pole but didn't locate it. It was picked up later in the morning near the fence on the western edge of the north dunes. Had I known this I may have tried for a photo, but the 3G coverage is so utterly hopeless in Norfolk that I could not open the RBA app on my iphone to see what was about. Effectively, once I'm out in the field, I have no way of knowing what else is about unless I text someone with internet access or ask other birders. The network coverage is really appalling and needs to be improved pronto!
With little else around I decided to walk the Nelson's Head track and see if I could manage some better RB Shrike shots. I had two Whinchats and two Wheatears along the track near the metal container, when I arrived at the RB Shrike site there were about fifteen birders already present. The light was harsher and the bird more mobile than last Thursday when I was there. Today, I stuck to the path hoping for it to come into some close by brambles but that never materialised. I did enjoy a great view of it catching and holding a lizard in its bill though. Having been around since last June, the bird does seem to be used to people at this stage, but nonetheless I was disappointed to see both photographers and birders pursuing the bird for a photo into the dunes rather than waiting in the one spot patiently for it to pose. That's not good fieldcraft as far as I'm concerned and even if the bird was not perturbed by this behaviour, I can understand why photographers get a bad press. With all that going on I didn't stay long and made my way back along the Nelson's Head track to the car, stopping briefly to try (unsuccessfully) for some Whinchat shots.
En route home I stopped at Great Yarmouth Cemetery where the migrant clear-out was very evident, not a dickie-bird to be seen.
Easterly winds are forecast from next Tuesday for at least a week, not much rain accompanying them but could still bring a fresh wave of migrants hopefully. We'll see!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Just glad to be birding

It would be an understatement to say the last few weeks have been difficult. On Sunday night, Polina's dear Mum finally succumbed to the cancer which she had been fighting so bravely for the past six months. We're both heartbroken and will miss Nina terribly. Having a dying person at home is both frightening and inspiring, in almost equal measure. To see the person suffer is heart-breaking, but to see their bravery, spirit and dignity in all of this was profound. To receive such kindness and support from friends, neighbours and carers was overwhelming and humbling.
I write this because I want to put today's birding into context. I had a very enjoyable day out. By any standards it was a great day. Great views of some very nice autumn migrants and some decent photos to boot. It lifted my spirits after all the events of the past few days. It doesn't fix things but as I sat in the rain, soaked right through watching a smart Red-back Shrike, I felt extremely lucky and thankful for being alive and being healthy. I have Nina to thank for that, amongst many other things.
So what of the birding then!!
Up early and walked the Nelson's Head track from 8am. I had two Whinchats and two Common Whitethroats with about five Wheatears near the container. I turned right and headed towards Winterton North Dunes to try for the long-staying male Red-backed Shrike. Past the pine plantation, he was easy to locate. I enjoyed decent and close views for fifteen minutes before heavy rain meant a disappearing trick. I sat and waited for his return as the the water slowly soaked through my light water-proofs and wet me right through. In truth, I had forgotten a rain cover for my lens so needed to use my jacket to keep it and my camera dry - hence the thorough wetting.

Red-backed Shrike, Winterton North Dunes, Norfolk - 28th August 2014
As I waited for the shrike to reappear, I was briefly entertained by a female Common Redstart, several Whinchats and two Common Whitethroats.

Whinchat - decent numbers of these around today.
After an hour and a half, I decided to go and look for theshrike. I relocated it about three hundred yards further on. I tried for a few more shots but by now I was starting to feel chilled and what is more my gear was getting wet. I got one more photo of the shrike (who himself was looking a bit soggy) and headed back along the track to the car for coffee and a chicken sambo.

Shrike in the rain - Winterton, Norfolk
En route back, the rain stopped and the sun began to shine. Nick Watmough texted to say that a Wryneck was being reported from the SE corner of the southern section of GY cemetery. With no report of the bird seen yesterday near the totem pole at Winterton north dunes, I decided to head to Great Yarmouth.
At the cemetery I met a couple more birders and with five pairs of eyes, we relocated the bird feeding on a flat stone slab. Initial pictures were sketchy but I did manage a couple of decent shots when it landed on a path in front of me as I turned to leave.....lucky!

Wryneck, Great Yarmouth Cemetery, Norfolk - 28th August 2014
I tried the north section for ten minutes to try and locate a Pied Flycatcher but by now I was a little tired and felt it would be better to call it a day and be happy with what I had seen.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Titchwell's Swamp Chicken

Ten weeks is almost the longest time I've had away from birding but work had quietened down a little and Nina was home from hospital so after a long hiatus I took Friday off and decided to head up to Titchwell for the Spotted Crake. Sadly the Long-tailed Skua seemed to have departed the area a few days previously so I wasn't going to catch up with that but the Crake would be more than enough.
Dog walking duties taken care of, I reached Titchwell at 8.30am. A bit later than I would have liked. I arrived at the spot for Crake and was told that "you should have bin 'ere five minutes ago"......never mind, I had all day, at least it was still present. I need not have worried though, ten minutes later it made a brief appearance, I had enough time to see the short stubby bill and buff / orange undertail coverts. That was Spotted Crake ticked. From then until midday I remained at the spot, the bird often showed well out in the open but spent most of the time at the far corner. From time to time it spread its wings and 'danced' around. I'm not sure if it was chasing away the juvenile Reed and Sedge Warblers or the juvenile Bearded Reedlings or simply fly-catching, whatever it was doing, it looked interesting. Anyway, all I managed were record shots, but clear enough to see the main features of the bird.

Spotted Crake, RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk - 1st August 2014
Figuring I wasn't going to get better shots, I headed along the main path towards the beach. Stopping along the way to watch this handsome Wood Sandpiper.

Wood Sandpiper, RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk - 1st August 2014
The light wasn't great so the background looks a little dull, I'd love to photograph this species well (should probably head to Finland in the spring so). Present in the same area were several juvenile LRPs, a summer plumaged Spotted Redshank (well ok - it was a little tatty), plenty of Ruff (amazing variation in plumages and sizes here - suppose it depends on age, sex, stage of moult etc.). I had three juvenile Spoonbills in flight with the Little Egrets but I believe the count was higher (I heard more than ten). I heard a report of a Curlew Sandpiper, I scanned the Dunlin but saw none (apart from a couple of large Dunlin). At the beach I had a flock of about ten very tatty looking Common Eider, two Bar 'wits and a very distant Skua (Arctic possibly).
I headed back for lunch and decided at the car to try for the Purple Heron at Cley. When I arrived though it had last been seen dropping down into a dyke east of the East Bank. There was nowhere to park other than at Walsey Hills NOA and walk. I hadn't time, so I dropped two other birders at the site for the heron and headed home to Norwich.
I wasn't complaining, Spotted Crake was a lifer and Wood Sand was a UK tick - so a good day all in all and great to get out after such a long break.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Nina my hero!

I'd like to say a few words about my dear Mother-in-Law Nina Kasapova. Last March she was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer on top of already having Parkinson's disease. The initial prognosis was not good but she now receiving treatment at the Norwich and Norfolk University Hospital. My deepest gratitude and thanks to the doctors and all the staff on the Mulbarton ward. I never want to hear a bad word about the NHS after this!
Nina is an amazing woman. Her resilience and fighting spirit after months of serious illness is just inspiring. I feel lucky to know her and privileged to be along side her and Polina during this time. After a tough day at work, I go up to see her at the NNUH and when I talk to her, my own little problems seem so insignificant and stupid. It really puts things into perspective.
If you want to have an idea of just how much a fighter she is, here a photo of Nina in her hospital bed giving cancer the middle finger!

Nina tells cancer what it can do!

Nina, if you're reading're my hero! Keep fighting and with love from all the dragons we will get through this.Then we can enjoy some tasty mussels at the Belgian Monk!

To those who read my blog and to all my fellow birders, please wish us well!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Lucky number thirteen

I haven't been out birding for months, for a variety of reasons. After the spring and an intensive week in Ohio, I was all birded out and I have enjoyed the break. Spectacled Warblers, Short-toed Eagles, Stilt Sandpipers and maybe even the Breydon Water Great Knot have all been less pressing than some other personal things that are going on right now.
However, if I go back to early last April in Latvia, I did have a nice local find. I kept it quiet at the time because of the possibility that the bird may attempt to breed in the area.
I was birding the Lieplupe river area near Dzintari, Jurmula (see Late winter in Latvia), it was early April but by UK standards it felt like early January. I came across a single male Stonechat singing from the reeds along the edge of one of the fishing ponds up there. Normally I only see Whinchats in Latvia so this was immediately a Latvian tick. Then I remembered a local birder telling me the species is rare here. So it turned out to be only the 13th national record of the species in Latvia.
It was a little distant for decent photos and because it was showing signs of being territorial, I left it alone. I contacted a local birder and let him know about the record, its on the Latvian Birding website now. I never got shots of the rump and underwing coverts but I don't think it looks anything other than rubicola.
Apparently it stayed a few days only before clearing off. A month later in early May I was back in the same area and there was no sign of it.

European Stonechat, Leiplupe River, Dzintari, Jurmala, Latvia, April 2014

Friday, 23 May 2014

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Final Day

The final day started wet and having walked the first fifty meters along the board walk it appeared that there had been a quite considerable clear out of birds. The place seemed deserted. However, along the first small loop I picked up another flycatcher, this one was also silent, but while watching it for a while I was joined by two experienced birders who knew enough about these species to assign it to Least Flycatcher (based mainly on the bold eye-ring and a diffuse pale line demarcating the throat from the chest). This is the commonest species of Empidonax at Magee Marsh also.
I continued on and stopped at the small bridge across the creek to watch two males Prothonotary Warblers having a little spate. It was quite a tussle and at one stage the two birds locked feet and tumbled in a kind of downward spiral out of the sycamore above me and down towards the board-walk. I tried to step out of the way but the two birds collided with my face at which point they separated and flew to into different trees. Neither bird was harmed in any way and soon continued their tussle slightly further away. I had been happy enough just to see Prothonotary Warblers up to now, but to have them actually touch me like that was a privilege, I doubt they even noticed!
Further on I stopped to take in some more views of Prothonotary Warblers and got talking to a couple of birders from Tennessee who had actually started their birding holiday in early April near Galveston, Texas and had been moving north along with the warblers before reaching their final destination of Magee Marsh. That's quite a trip. They had a brief view of what they were certain was a Connecticut Warbler, unfortunately it had disappeared before I got a chance to see it, even though I was only ten yards away. I gave it two hours in the same spot later in the afternoon with a couple of other birders. We could hear it singing much further back but we couldn't see it. Pity, would have been a life bird for me. In the time I spent at that spot though I managed some reasonable shot of a male and female American Redstart, a male Blackpoll Warbler and another singing male Prothonotary Warbler.

Female American Redstart

Male American Redstart

Male Blackpoll Warbler

Male Blackpoll Warbler

Male Prothonotary Warbler
And I did manage to add Alder and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher to my life list also. In fact, while warbler numbers were down, the expected arrival of flycatchers had been accurately predicted. They were slightly harder to photograph, staying further back than the warblers so there was usually foliage or a branch in the way. Here's a shot though of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
The day was moving on, I decided to make my way back slowly to the parking lot. I gave myself enough time because this would be my last walk along the famous board walk and I knew it would be hard to extract myself from the place.
Canada Warbler numbers (males only) seemed to be up for the day though. Along with the still present Magnolias and Redstarts, these were the commonest species.

Male Canada Warbler
Before I left I got a little bit of luck and came across a reasonably showy Veery. Up until now, I had only fleeting glimpses of this species and it is possibly my favourite of the Catharus thrushes.

And of course I couldn't go without trying once more for some Pronthonotary shots, these ones I think worked out the best.

Male Prothonotary Warbler
And one last photo before I left, an American Woodcock came into view foraging around on the deck near to the tower. A clear shot was difficult but here's one with the eye. You can just about see it from the photo that their underparts are much more rufous than their European counter-parts.

American Woodcock
I eventually left the board-walk for the last time.It was hard to leave but my time was up, I felt I had finished on a high!

The next morning I packed up, drove back to Detroit, dropped the car off and flew back to England. I'm still jet-lagged but on a high from such a great trip.

Magee Marsh certainly lived up to all my expectations. The birds do indeed come within touching distance and it pays to have a 300mm lens also or an extension tube on your 500mm (thanks for the tip Rob Holmes). I used external flash for the first time and while I struggled early on it did work out in the end and there were shots I got with it that I wouldn't have otherwise managed. I timed my trip to avoid the crowds of the Biggest Week festival. I was a little afraid that I would miss the peak warbler arrival but I don't believe I missed any species by being a week later and the crowds apart from Saturday and Sunday were not too bad. It also worked out nicely because by being there on 19th and 20th May I got the arriving Empidonax flycatchers, all of which were lifers for me and a very interesting group of birds too.
The birding scene in the US is interesting. I would respectfully say that many of the people I met at Magee were comparatively new to birding and still learning to ID a lot of species. Having said that I did meet some very competent and experienced birders especially in the last couple of days, who were very helpful and worthwhile chatting to. I was fascinated to see so many Amish families birding. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan are strongholds for Amish communities so maybe I shouldn't have been too surprised. I also met one bird photographer opening carrying a revolver on his hip, I had to ask him why and he said it saves him from getting any hassle when he's out with $20,000 worth of gear. But all the same, it still looked odd to me as a European where even the police in the UK and Ireland don't carry guns.
Above all though I was very impressed with how polite, courteous and friendly everyone was to each other. That's not just the birders and photographers but right across Ohio and Michigan, the people in the supermarkets, the restaurants, the airport, car rental, everywhere in fact. US birders I spoke to have an impression that the scene in the UK is tight-lipped and cold. That's a generalization but not without some element of truth. As I said, ID skills weren't always that advanced, but no one mis-behaved, neither photographer nor birder and everyone respected each others wish to see and or photograph a bird.