Monday 24 February 2014

First lifer of 2014

Started early on Sunday morning, picking Nick up at 7am and then planning to reach Thornham harbour by 8am. The plan was to look for the small flock of Twite that had been reported there.
En route we came past Chosely Barns, before Christmas I had a thirty strong Brambling flock here. I slowed as finches flew along the hedgerow in front of me. Nick picked up a Corn Bunting sitting out on top of the right hand side hedge, my bins were in the boot (d'uh), by the time I had retrieved them it was gone. All I got was a silhouette and as it would be a British tick, I will have to leave it. I could take Nick's word but I need tickable views myself. We parked up and began to watch the sizable Yellowhammer flock feeding on grains on the concrete and drinking from the pools of water by the roadside. The Corn Bunting never re-appeared but when this very pale Yellowhammer turned up, Nick immediately asked me if I knew much about female Pine Buntings. The answer is no, but we scrutinized it for a bit. I took a few record shots and from the viewfinder you could just about make out some yellow-ish fringes to the primaries. These were more evident, along with some yellow on the belly, when I checked the shots at home on photoshop. It's still the palest and greyest 'hammer I have ever seen, almost like a washed out Meadow Pipit.

Very grey Yellowhammer - yellow fringes to primaries just visible
With no sign of the Corn Bunting, we decided to continue on for Thornham.....where the Twite awaited!!
I don't know the site itself, the reports said "seen on the old sea wall". When I got there, the sea wall was a lot longer and broader than expected, an hour of searching in a biting westerly wind failed to produce the goods. Twite remains elusive for me, I tried Raghly in Sligo twice, Titchwell twice and now Thornham and I still have yet to see this species. Some day, with luck, I'll stumble upon them unexpectedly.
A little disappointed, Nick suggested we head for Abbey farm near Flitcham. Abbey farm has a small hide from which its possible to see some farmland species such as Corn Bunting, Brambling and Little Owl. A flock of about fifteen Brambling flew over us as we got out of the car and landed in the treetops, but that's where they stayed, some feeders or some seed on the ground would be great for photos. From the hide it was possible to see a Little Owl perched on a distant tree stump. It remained stationary all the time we were there, good scope views but too distant for the lens. Even at 700mm, this was the best I could get.

Little Owl, Abbey farm, Flitcham, Norfolk - 23 February 2014

Cropped - for your viewing pleasure!
Word on the t'interweb was that the RL Buzzard at Ongar Hill had been showing well. Another bogey bird for me, I missed the Kilcoole, County Wicklow bird in 2012 and also those seen around Holkham Pines last year. So I was not optimistic. We reached the spot and marched out towards the sea wall. Fortunately two other birders returning to their car gave us 'gen' that they had seen the bird only ten minutes earlier heading west along the sea wall. We headed in that direction along the top of the same sea wall. The wind was howling at this stage, there was no shelter up there and I could barely hear anything over the roar of the gale. However, our luck was in. We had gone about half a mile when Nick spotted the bird hovering just slightly above the sea wall and into the wind.  We approached carefully and just as I got my camera set up the bird decided to do a fly past. The light was poor and the wind was brutal but I managed a few record shots as the bird moved past us and headed back down the sea wall.

Rough-legged Buzzard, Ongar Hill, Norfolk - 23 February 2014
I'm not much good at ageing and sexing raptors. But based on a quick look through Dick Forsman's 'The Raptors of Europe and Middle East', I'm going with 2cy juvenile. I'm basing this on the brown rather than black tail band (its also a little diffuse) and the dark secondaries versus primaries. Could be wrong though and I need to take longer to go through the literature. Still a life bird for me though!
From Ongar Hill, we stopped in Downham Market and enjoyed nice views of about seven Goosanders on the river Great Ouse (both males and redheads). Our route back to Norwich took us via Lynford Arboretum, neither of us bothered to check for Crossbills, I've been there and done that on several occasions and still think one of the male Two-barred Crossbills is a wing-barred Common Crossbill. As usual the Hawfinches remained out of sight in the paddocks, as did the Firecrests! By now it was after 3pm, we had both begun to fade. As Van Morrison sang "Out all day birdwatching and the craic was good", but now it was time to go home.
I may have missed Corn Bunting, Twite and Hawfinch but great views of my first Rough-legged Buzzard were more than good enough for me.

Monday 17 February 2014

Waxwing - a Norwich tick

Despite a couple of tries earlier in the winter, I hadn't connected yet with any of the Waxwings frequenting Norwich. A single bird found by James Emerson feeding on an apple tree on Ber Street, Norwich just opposite John Lewis was worth a go. I dropped Polina into town on Saturday morning and came back via Ber Street. I struggled at first to locate the apple tree but in the end I ended up parking right beside it. The single, lone and solitary Waxwing was easy to locate of course. I spent an hour watching it and trying to take some shots from between the wire mesh fence and the tangle of twigs and branches on the apple tree. Being in the city centre I attracted quite a bit of interest from passers-by. But its always good to be able to show non-birders something special like a Waxwing, it might even light a spark for someone.

1st winter Waxwing - Ber Street, Norwich - 15th February 2014

Sunday 9 February 2014

Double dipping

So back to the birding. Despite a howling gale this morning, I decided to head for the north coast and look for the Gramborough Hill / Kelling Quags' Richard's Pipit. I knew this one could be hit or miss, its been around since before Christmas but all reports have had the moniker, ".........tho elusive" or ".........very mobile" and so on. I spent two hours at the site but neither saw nor heard it. I hadn't been up to the coast since the early December tidal surges and was really amazed to see that the car park at Salthouse has disappeared under tonnes of shingle.
With the bird a no show and nothing else of note (apart from a flock of forty or so DB Brents), I decided to try for the Wiveton Glossy Ibis. At least I thought this would be a shoe-in, no problems. I struggled to interpret the directions on RBA, because all I could see in the flooded fields between Wiveton bridge and Wiveton Church were Curlews, therefore I assumed I was in the wrong place. Eventualy I met another birder who told me it had been seen earlier in the day in the very same field I was looking into, right place but wrong time. I searched around to no avail until about 4.30pm, by which stage the light was gone and both cold and hunger had gotten the better of me.
However, I did see two Barn Owls hunting that general area, the first of 2014, and a third one on the way home. Hopefully they're faring better than last winter.

Barn Owls - Wiveton, Norfolk - 9th February 2014

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Six Nations update - part one

Now that the dust has settled on the first weekend of the Six Nations, its a little easier to dissect the teams and the games and look at where they all stand.
The opening match of Wales versus Italy was, as expected, somewhat of a dull affair. Italy looked better than we might have expected and Sergio Parisse continues to look like the class act he's always been. Since the retirement of Diego Domingo though, the Azzurri continue to struggle to find a decent fly-half. Wales played without Warburton and Davies but were otherwise at full strength. They made hard work of their victory but you can expect them to step out of third gear for next weekend's fixture in Dublin.
A short time after the final whistle blew in Cardiff, it was kick-off in Stade de France for the fixture of the weekend, France versus England. I tipped France to win and while they did, it was far from convincing. They started well but once England stepped up the physicality, the French struggled. The early lead kept them in contention on the score-board and a fatal lapse of concentration in the final minutes allowed them to strike and steal the match, grand larceny indeed. They won't ride their luck like that too often in the championship though and I believe teams like Ireland and Wales will push them hard later in the tournament. France seem to be struggling to find the right half-backs also and I was disappointed that both Fofana and Bastareaud had such quiet games (credit to England for that though). England on the other hand were impressive and I would expect them to kick on from the disappointment and put the Scots to the knife in the this weekend's Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh. They had some excellent ball-carriers in Billy Vunipola and later Ben Morgan. If I have one criticism its the lack of a real game-breaker in their back five. But they will be hard to beat make no mistake and represent Ireland's toughest challenge of the remaining matches.
And so to Ireland. I had hoped and expected to see them start where they had left off against the All Blacks by bringing a high level of pace and intensity to the opposition right from the kick-off. Scotland owned the ball for most of the first half and I began to worry that it would be last November's Australia match all over again. That said, we still went in at half-time five points in front. The Scots must have been scratching their heads! In the second half, Ireland played much tighter, hung onto the ball and took the opposition through the phases. This created mis-matches and gaps that lead to scores or penalties from which we gained ground or kicked three-pointers. In the end, the final score was a fair reflection of the difference between the two sides. Ireland scored three tries and went to the TMO for another two which were disallowed. The most encouraging aspect for me was with the introduction of a completely new front row in the second half (Marty Moore, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath), there seemed to be no apparent dip in scrummaging performance or the team's general cohesion, when was the last time we saw that happen?
It'll be a tougher test this weekend, Ireland have a shorter turn-around than Wales. I believe Ireland's more convincing victory over Scotland will have them better prepared mentally than Wales' sluggish win over Italy. Paul O'Connell should start as will Gordon D'Arcy, otherwise I expect the team to remain unchanged. There's a case to be made for starting with the exellent Tommy O'Donnell but Chris Henry did enough to hold onto his place.
So how are the matches going to go this weekend. England will have far too much for Scotland so I expect to see the poor Scots on the end of a thrashing. France will beat Italy in Paris but you can expect the Italians to do well. Ireland versus Wales is the fixture of the weekend, two closely matched, high quality teams going at it. Everyone says that the goings-on in the Welsh regions have no effect on the national team, but I'm not completely convinced yet, To sway me, they need to wallop Ireland and I don't think that will happen. Wales will play a hard, physical and direct route one game. Ireland will need to defend bravely and play for 80 minutes. But home advantage and a returning Paul O'Connell may just tip the balance Ireland's way, but only just.
 Prior to the opening round of this year's Six Nations Championship, I gave my prediction of how things would finish. I pitched Wales in at the top followed by France, Ireland, England, Scotland and Italy. Last weekend the results went the way I expected....just, but at one match apiece the balance has shifted. I think its now looking like England, Ireland, Wales, France, Italy and Scotland.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Third time lucky with GY Shorelarks

So with January over and the 'foot-it' challenge done until next year, this morning it was back to a more normal routine. This meant checking the web to see what was around and then deciding what to go for. I hadn't gotten the camera out since Christmas so I was keen to take some photos. The weather was bang on for that this morning, good winter sunshine, dry and only a little wind. I had seen regular reports on RBA of the two Shorelarks at Great Yarmouth and although I had tried twice without success for these pair, the 'gen' seemed a little bit more specific this time, so I elected for third time lucky.
I arrived at the appointed spot around 9.30am, 50 meters along the beach, north of the Imperial Hotel. However, it seemed like it would be like the previous two occasions once more. I chatted to three other birders who had been searching without luck for about an hour, when a walker alerted us to the presence of the two birds just in front of her. Although the person was not a birder, she seemed to know what they were when her dog flushed them!!  This time I didn't complain. We all got good views as the birds fed about one hundred meters in front of us. In time they came close but not enough for decent shots. For no apparent reason they took flight, they passed over my head and disappeared once more into the small sand dunes a little closer to the Britannia pier.
While I had the chance, I returned to the car to drop off my tripod and retrieve a bean-bag and frying pan. I felt this approach might work a little better if I wanted close shots. Fortunately I managed to relocate the pair quite rapidly and this time I found that the frying pan technique worked really well. If you don't know what this means, it involves placing the bean-bag into an old frying pan, sitting the camera and lens on top of the bean-bag, lying on your belly on the sand and pushing the whole lot along in front of you. The birds don't see it as a human shape and tend to allow closer access.

Shorelark, Great Yarmouth Beach, Norfolk - 2nd February 2014
This is only the second time I've seen this species. I could see them a hundred times more and I still wouldn't grow tired of them. What belting birds they are.
Happy enough with my shots, once the birds moved off, I got up and headed back to the car.
I decided to head back towards Norwich via Strumpshaw fen, but en route I checked for the Common Cranes between Acle bridge and Billocksby, but had no joy there.
At Strumpshaw fen, the feeders near the first hide were busy but no Bramblings or Marsh Tit were present oddly enough.
However, along the woodland trail they have located a feeding station on two old tree stumps. A couple of Nuthatches and several Marsh Tits (along with many more commoner species), were coming in to feed and presenting some decent photographic opportunities. I didn't give it that long there but will come back soon to try for some more Nuthatch shots.

Nuthatch, Strumpshaw fen RSPB, Norfolk - 2nd February 2014
I checked the fen hide briefly but needed to call time on my birding as Ireland versus Scotland beckoned!