Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Bird's Eye Shrike

In keeping with the ongoing Shrike theme, I headed out of Norfolk and down to Lowestoft, Suffolk where a long staying juvenile / first winter Red-backed Shrike has been showing nicely behind the pristine backdrop of the Bird's Eye fish finger factory - it doesn't get more glamorous than that!
Anyway, I arrived at 2pm (having spent the morning doing 'chores' at home). The bird was showing on and off, but the overcast and slightly cool weather meant it perhaps wasn't as active as it had been earlier in the week. Also, having been around for a few days now it wasn't feeding as voraciously as it must have done upon its arrival. A lot of the time it spent perched on the same branch watching for prey items, dashing out after some hapless bee, catching it mid-air and returning to the same branch to knock its sting out and devour it. Problem was its favorite branch was just a little too far for good shots. Still, I waited in the same spot and it did eventually approach to within a reasonable distance.

Red-backed Shrike, Ness Point, Lowestoft, Suffolk
Shortly after though the showers began and this put paid to any decent photo opportunities. The bird maintained its preference for the same branch, using it for a time to give itself a good wash down!

Havin' a wash in the heavy downpours!
With the on and off rain, I decided to sit in the car and use this as a hide. Meanwhile the bird continued to deplete the local bee population but sadly I didn't succeed in improving on my earlier shots.

One less bee in Lowestoft
At around 5.15pm as the sun sank behind the Bird's Eye factory, I saw the bird sit a little deeper into the brambles and puff its feathers up, I presume it was getting ready to roost. The light was gone too so I packed up and headed off. Tomorrow is another day!

Friday, 10 October 2014

'Steppe Grey Shrike'

I haven't done any filthy twitching for some time now. I worked through all my breaks today and this afternoon I got out of work a little early making it to Burnham Norton just after 4pm. As I recall the first time I ever did an 'after-work dash' for a rare bird was to the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork in 2006 to see Ireland's only second ever Isabelline Shrike. A fine bird that was and this Shrike was no different.
Depending on which literature you consult 'Steppe Grey Shrike' pallidirostris is either a subspecies of Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor or Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis. Either-way not a full species, but that doesn't matter. Still a very striking looking bird and it had come from a long way away (as the name suggests from the central Asian steppe of northern Pakistan, north-east Iran, Afghanistan extending as far east as China)....quite a journey!
The bird had been found almost a week ago and early reports and photos suggested that most of the time it was quite distant. So I wasn't expecting any photographs, I even brought my scope being quite happy to just see the bird never mind take any decent photographs. However, much to my surprise, when I arrived at the site it was perched on a fence post only thirty feet away. The assembled crowd of twenty or thirty people were enjoying frame filling scope views and those with long lens were getting decent shots. I whipped my gear out as quick as I could and fired off a few frames hand-held. These weren't great but the bird gave me time to get the tripod and extender set up and I managed a decent enough pic as it sat on what seemed to be its favourite post.

Steppe Grey Shrike - Burnham Norton, Norfolk
This photo shows off some of the distinct plumage characteristics of this race quite nicely. The steel-grey bill, diminished face mask, pale lores and large white primary patch. Of course even before you take all of that in there is the fact that on first impression the bird is a lot more pallid and washed-out looking than Great Grey Shrike and the underparts have a beautiful pinkish-buff hue about them, possibly more in keeping with its desert habitat (??).
The bird's routine was to fly down into the turned up earth and hunt around for grubs and meal-worms. Most times it returned to the same post but on one occasion it brought its prey item to a bramble a little closer and proceeded to do what shrike's do by impaling it on a spike!

Steppe Grey Shrike - Burnham Norton, Norfolk
I presume if its 'lardering' then it has more than enough food. How long it stays around though is anyone's guess. I'm also thinking that it was 'fresh-in' when found last Sunday and has spent the week recovering its fat reserves following what was presumably a very long migration.
The bird posed briefly on the bramble before retreating into a hawthorn bush further along the edge of the flooded ditch. The rain began to fall gently as I packed up and headed back, by the time I reached the car it was a thunderous downfall. Clearly the bird knew this was coming and had retreated to cover for the evening.

Steppe Grey Shrike - Burnham Norton, Norfolk

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!