Thursday 22 October 2020

East Winds - part two!

After three early starts and lots of walking, I decided Saturday would be a rest day and I would be raring to go Sunday before heading back to work.

However, things didn't quite go to plan. I was busy doing chores on Saturday morning when a message on the Norwich Birders WhatsApp group said "Rufous Bush Chat at Stiffkey". Now that's a bird and a half! One of my favourite species. However, and there will be a lot of birders who won't understand this, but my first reaction was 'I'm not going to bother going for that'! I'm not much of a twitcher and my immediate thought was 'that'll be one hell of a shitshow'. I could see it already, large crowds of birders (in a pandemic), parking problems, pissed off locals, birders accusing 'toggers', 'toggers' accusing birders, a lost, hungry bird being pushed around by the crowd. Not how I want to do my birding and not how I want to see a bird. 

I tried to press on with my chores and 'stuff' but I was distracted now and I was relieved when I got a message from James Appleton to say he had found a Pallas's Warbler in the churchyard at Happisburgh. I gathered my gear up and headed out.

Suffice to say I didn't see the Pallas's. I walked from the cricket club to coast watch and en route I bumped into James who had just found a tail-pumping Pipit. He was pretty sure it was just a Tree Pipit and his 'back of the camera' shots did look like Tree Pipit (albeit the head / face pattern wasn't visible in the shots), raspberry legs and fine flank streaks. We searched for the bird and I flushed a pipit which called briefly (sounding very like Tree Pipit), alighted on a telegraph wire and then dropped down and out of sight before I could see it either through bins or take a photo. We couldn't relocate it but seemed to have resolved ourselves into taking it as Tree Pipit, although I did think it was late for that species. 

That evening James processed the shots and sent me photos of what was certainly an Olive-backed Pipit. D'oh!!

I looked the next morning as did James but it was gone. Double d'oh.

But I was out in the field now, there wasn't much else happening so I bit the bullet and drove to Stiffkey. And you know wasn't all that bad. I got parked without too much trouble (although all those sensors and cameras on my car did assist). I donned my wellies and face -mask and marched out across the salt marsh to where the crowd was assembled. 


Birders on Stiffkey saltmarsh

I found a reasonable gap that allowed me to maintain social distance and waited for the bird to show. A minute later (yes, just one minute), the bird popped up on the sueda on the opposite side of the channel from where I stood and posed for a minute before flitting off. I cursed myself for not bringing my big lens whilst I fired off a few frames. Job done! I watched the bird for a short while longer before beating a retreat back to my car for lunch.

Eastern Rufous Bush Robin - Stiffkey, Norfolk - 18th October 2020

The bird is supposedly one of the eastern races familiaris or syriaca (I suppose I may have seen syriaca in Kuwait?) which is duller than the nominate race galactotes (which I saw in Morocco - see images below). 


Rufous Bush Robin (galactotes), Morocco - May 2013

Truth be told it was a bit scruffy looking (certainly compared to the above specimen) but despite that it has survived as far as Wednesday 21st October, lets hope it continues to do so. An extradinary find and all said, I'm glad I saw it. Birders were well-behaved and the whole thing wasn't anything like the fiasco I expected it to be.

East winds - part one!

I was off for all of last week and although my trip to Cape Clear Island had been cancelled due to Covid, it was starting to look like staying in Norfolk all week might not be so bad. On Monday and Tuesday I added some brownie points into the bag but from Wednesday onwards, just as the wind started to blow from deep in the east, I went birding!

The first day I focused my attention mainly around the Happisburgh area. Birding around the village of Happisburgh and up as far as Walcott and down as far as Cart Gap. In the morning there were good numbers of grounded Redwing, Fieldfares, Blackbirds with some Robins and Chaffinches, though numbers thinned out as the morning wore on. In the afternoon I picked up a smart male Ring Ouzel between Cart Gap and Happisburgh Lighthouse. I finished the day at Waxham hoping to see the Pallas's Warbler that had been found just north of the Shangri-La Cottage and although it was present I found it very tricky to see in amongst the ivy-clad sycamores. However, a pair of Black Redstarts at Waxham church were a nice conclusion to the day especially the dapper looking male.

Female Black Redstart, Waxham Church, Norfolk - 14th October 2020

Male Black Redstart, Waxham Church, Norfolk - 14th October 2020

I started Thursday morning again at Happisburgh but apart from two fly-over Brambling at the Cricket Club plus a Short-eared Owl that appeared to come in off the sea near the Coast watch, it was a bit quiet. After I'd left Waxham the previous evening, a Red-flanked Bluetail had been found near the pipedump. In fact as the week progressed there were (I think) at least ten Bluetails in Norfolk alone including four birds at Holme. Anyway, being nearly eight years since I saw my one and only Bluetail, I decided it was time to see another. I headed over to Waxham and enjoyed great views of the bird as it fed along the fence line between the Shangri-La and the pipe dump.


Red-flanked Bluetail, Waxham - 15th October 2020

I had the briefest of views afterwards of the Pallas's Warbler plus another Short-eared Owl and both Black Redstarts were still present in the churchyard.
On Friday, I walked from Horsey Gap car park to the plantation at Winterton but just managed four Brambling. However, Goldcrest numbers were impressive with many looking like they had literally just made landfall as they flitted around the marram grass at the top of the sand dunes. (By the way, I love their alternative moniker 'Woodcock Pilots', in my mind I can see them safely guiding migrating Woodcock on dark autumn nights. Very evocative!). 


Goldcrest, Winterton Plantation, Norfolk - 16th October 2020

On the way back I had a nice female Black Redstart at the pillbox just south of the car park.


Female Black Redstart, Horsey Gap, Norfolk - 16th October 2020

In the afternoon I chased after a Red-throated Pipit at Sea Palling (without success). The best I could muster was one more Brambling and two more Short-eared Owls that appeared to come in off the sea somewhere between Cart Gap and Happisburgh.

Distant cropped shot of two Short-eared Owls, Happisburgh / Cart Gap, Norfolk - 16th October 2020

Friday 9 October 2020

Herr Schwarzi

Well I was supposed to be en route to Cape Clear Island, Cork for my annual autumn birding holiday but sadly Covid has taken care of that. It never really looked likely though, so it seemed appropriate to be seeing a bird today that I last saw in Cork (specifically in 2007 on the Old Head of Kinsale). That bird being Radde's Warbler. The species is named after one Gustav Radde who accompanied Professor Ludwig Schwarz on the East Siberian Expedition of 1855. Radde's Warbler's scientific name is Phylloscopus Schwarzi.    

Mid-morning I drove down to the charming town of Southwold on the Suffolk coast. When I arrived the bird had been missing for at least an hour. The wind had picked up and although this bird had been showing well, the species is notoriously skulking so I was starting to worry a little. My views of the bird in Cork were just about tickable so I really hoped for better. And I wasn't to be disappointed. As is often the case, just wait patiently. I positioned myself close to where it had first been seen and set up my camera up on the tripod. After an hour the bird passed my way and fed down low at the base of a small Tamarisk. A small group enjoyed excellent views down to within twenty feet for about a minute before it moved on.


                                                Radde's Warbler - Southwold, Suffolk - 9th October 2020

And as it moved on, in case we were in any doubt as to its identification, it gave us all a quick flash of its arse, showing that apricot vent to full effect.

                                         Radde's Warbler, Southwold, Suffolk - 9th October 2020

I hung around for another hour, I had one shot that was tantalisingly close to being as good as you could hope for in this species but a frond just blocked the cruel!

Radde's Warbler, Southwold, Suffolk - 9th October 2020

Back at the carpark another birder told me of a rather obliging Purple Sandpiper at the end of the pier. He wasn't wrong there.

                                                Purple Sandpiper, Southwold, Suffolk - 9th October 2020

Time was running out and I needed to get back, but another birder got me onto this striking looking 1st Winter Caspian Gull. A very upright, long-legged and long-necked Gull and well worth a good look.


1st Winter Caspian Gull - Southwold, Suffolk - 9th October 2020


Tuesday 6 October 2020

Follow-up Chat

So, a quick update to my last blog post (A day to remember). If you read to the end you'll know that late Saturday evening Nick and I came across an odd looking chat at the end of Doggett's Lane. I got stuck somewhere between Whinchat and Stonechat and to be fair to Nick at the time he called Sibe Stonechat and possibly 'Stejneger's'. However, all this was based on about a total 30 second view. We did get a pale, apricoty, unstreaked rump and a off-white chin / throat plus that nice 'gentle / open' expression. However, that was it. We coudn't re-find it despite searching in the gathering rain and gloom. On the way back towards where we first had it, I saw what I thought was the bird but we both kind of dismissed this as a female European Stonechat (we had about 9 hours in the field by then and our brains were addled). It flew further away and perched on a bramble. I wasn't sure so decided to take a record shot. The second I pressed the shutter it flew off, curses I thought! I didn't bother to process the image until last night and here it is.

                                Probable Siberian 'Stejneger's' Stonechat, Cart Gap, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020


I wish I had processed the photo earlier but in any case, it was the Sibe Stonechat after all showing a nice unstreaked rump and dark auxiliaries. If it had stayed perched none of these features would have been visible.

Nick searched the following day (Sunday) but to no avail. On Monday Richard Moores re-found the bird (I'm assuming the same bird based on the photos he posted) and managed to obtain a faeces sample which has been sent away for DNA analysis. Top work there Richard.

As of today 6th October, the bird is still present though does go missing into the adjacent beet field at times. I will try later in the week to get back there and see it well. Meantime, let's wait and see what the pooh sample tells us.

Sunday 4 October 2020

A day to remember

Yesterday was possibly one of the finest day's birding I ever enjoyed. To try and summarise it all in one single blog post is not doing it enough justice but I'll try. To create some context, the wind had been blowing from the east for the previous 24 hours. It had been raining overnight and was still wet and grey when I pulled into the car park at Happisburgh Cricket Club at 7.30am on Saturday morning. I had tempered my expectations, too often its easy to get over-excited with conditions like this and then walk away later in the day, empty handed and despondent. But small groups of Redwing and Song Thrush going over already plus several Robins squabbling in the hedgerow by the bowling green were good signs. 

Nick and I walked to the Coast Watch whereupon we met with Richard Moores who'd already had a Common Redstart and several Brambling en route there. A Dunlin flew in off the sea and joined the Wheatear already present on the muddy patch in front of the Coast Watch building.

                                                    Dunlin - Happisburgh, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020


                                                Wheatear, Happisburgh, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020

 Soon after Nick picked up a smart Shorelark in the same patch of mud.

                                                   Shorelark, Happisburgh - 3rd October 2020

Nick and I headed south along the cliff walk whilst Richard headed back to the Cricket Club. However, we didn't get too far before Richard called us back as he'd found a Wryneck at the Paddocks.

                                            Wryneck - Happisburgh, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020

It was still early doors but already shaping up to be one of our better days at Happisburgh. 

Meanwhile out at sea, stuff was on the move. Every time I looked out there was a small of flock of something, Teal, Common Scoter, Brent Geese and this small band of Eider.

                                        Eider - Happisburgh, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020

We walked the cliffs, through the old caravan park and as far as the Lighthouse where we flushed a tired Woodcock. Heading back towards the village we flushed a second Woodcock and watched as it flew up along Beach Road. Arriving back at the Cricket Club we thought it was probably a good time to draw breathe and make a pit stop. We drove up towards Walcott for a full English in the Kingfisher Cafe.

As we munched through our healthy breakfast it was clear from scanning WhatsApp, Twitter and various Bird News Services, that stuff was continuing to arrive and whats more Happisburgh was faring as well as anywhere else along the east coast. With that in mind, we decided after breakfast to head back to the Coast Watch and see if anything else had dropped in. 

It was now close to 1pm, and numbers of Song Thrushes and Redwings streaming in off the sea over our heads were building. In fact, it was constant and continuous, every time I looked up I could see them and hear them. The gardens along the path to the Coast Watch were hopping with tired and bedraggled thrushes feeding up after making the sea crossing. Robins were everywhere plus it seemed a lot more Dunnocks too. I wondered had these birds left the coast of Belgium or Holland that morning and were now hitting the east coast in a wave, or maybe they left the coast of Norway the previous night and were now reaching landfall after over 12 hours on the wing. I don't obviously know but one thing for sure there were lots of them, they were tired and soggy and no dount relieved to reach 'dry' land.

At the Coast Watch, the Shorelark, Dunlin and Wheatear were still present but they were joined by Blackcaps, Goldcrests, Robins, Meadow Pipits, two more Wheatears and several Song Thrushes. All fresh arrivals since we were there a few hours ago. 

                                        Goldcrest - Happisburgh Coast Watch - 3rd October 2020

We walked north along the cliff path towards Ostend. Flushing several Mipits as we went plus Lapland, Snow, Reed Bunting and more Wheatears.

                                   Lapland Bunting, Happisburgh / Ostend - 3rd October 2020

We checked several sheltered spots around Ostend and found a Common Redstart and another Woodcock plus many more Blackcaps, Goldcrests, Chiffchaffs, Robins and of course Song Thrushes and Redwings. At the allotments, I picked up two flyover Hawfinches which briefly alighted on a tree before setting off again - the hours listening to nocmig calls clearly paying off. I was pretty chuffed with myself for recognising the call.



                                                 Hawfinch, Ostend, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020

Arriving back at Happisburgh we had another flyover Hawfinch as we walked past the horse paddocks. We could have called it a day at that stage but there was still a little gas left in the tank (although I was flagging as we must've been heading for 9 hours in the field by then). We drove over to Cart Gap and walked Doggett's Lane. Still the Song Thrushes and Redwings were arrriving plus this tired and soggy looking Short-eared Owl that just look like it wanted to sit down and rest but kept getting mobbed by the local Corvids.

                                                    Short-eared Owl - Cart Gap, Norfolk - 3rd October 2020

At the end of Doggett's Lane, we chanced upon a juvenile type chat that immediately had the alarm bells ringing. At first it was fly-catching from a distant Hawthorn bush so a little difficult to make out what it was. Then it dropped down and came closer, it sat up facing me on a dead Umbellifer where I thought it looked like a funny Whinchat - but not a Whinchat if you know what I mean and not a European Stonechat either. Pale and 'apricoty' looking with a 'gentle' expression. It flew away from us where it revealed a unstreaked apricot rump. And that was the last we saw of it. It just vanished. We searched in the rain and gathering gloom but couldn't relocate it. Nick checked the next day and no sign - pity! 

I arrived back at the car at about 5.30pm. I got home about 6.20pm, ate and then went to bed. I was shattered. Its taken until now to gather my thoughts and run through the day in my head. Apart from the interesting chat at Doggett's Lane, there were no major rares, but just birds, birds and more birds all day long. There was something at every turn and never a dull moment. To see migration in action like that, as masses of thrushes streamed overhead, no doubt relieved make landfall, tired, wet and hungry. How many didn't make the journey, nature is cruel. And to the Wrynecks, Chiffs, Redstarts and Blackcaps, that's only part of it. They still need to cross the channel, the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara before they can rest for the winter. Good luck to them all!