Friday, 29 November 2019

Norfolk pays off, 16-17th November 2019

On Saturday we were on our way to Minehead in Somerset for yet another stab at seeing a Hoopoe. It would be our third such attempt this year. Our plans were scuppered quickly though when almost as soon as joining the M5 southbound we noticed the matrix signs were warning that the motorway was closed between junctions 21 and 22. I pulled off at a service station and consulted the map book since I wasn't sure which junction we were due to leave at, 24 as it happened, and also Twitter to find out what was causing the road closure. A bad accident earlier in the day had resulted in the road being closed and delays were estimated at 2 hours so it would have been stupid to continue, especially considering that there was no viable detour to make. We turned around and headed back towards home. Hoopoe, it would seem, would have to wait until next years list.

As a fall back we decided to go to the outskirts of Milton Keynes and to a place where Gulls go to bathe and preen after spending time scavenging at a nearby landfill. Quite a few Caspian Gulls have been seen there and we still needed one for the year list. However we'd already tried twice before over the last couple of months and failed and Caspian Gulls are tricky birds to ID, for me anyway, at the best of times. On arriving we checked out the playing field where the Gulls normally hang out but it was deserted except for the resident Canada Goose flock. There were, however, a fair number of Gulls in the small lake next to the field. I parked the car and scoped the Gulls. Even to my inexperienced eyes there were clearly no Caspian's present although, as I always tend to do, I tried very hard to turn a couple of other species into one of them.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (one that I initially tried to "Caspianise"!)
I did manage to pick out a Common Gull amongst the Great & Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls, no great feat since the other Gulls are considerably bigger!

Common Gull
There was also a surprise when I spotted a Mediterranean Gull in amongst the few Black-headed Gulls present.

Mediterranean Gull
We waited an hour or so but when no other Gulls flew in we called it a day. We'd have to try yet again for a Caspian this year. It was only mid-afternoon so on a whim we detoured to Calvert to look in and see if one of the resident Bitterns would show for us. The doorless hide there only has room for four birders at a time and our general rule of thumb is that if there is more than a single car parked in the pull off then it's best to leave it for another day. We were in luck since there was just one car so we togged up and walked the short distance to the hide. The only occupant was our friend and keen photographer Lee who told us that he'd been sat there all day since first light. He'd seen a Bittern just twice in 6 hours!

We chatted away whilst systematically scanning each of the channels cut through the small reedbed. Lee related that a Bittern had travelled from the central block of reeds across the left hand channel and into the left hand block of reed about two hours before and that a guy who had journeyed all the way from Wolverhampton had left five minutes before the bird had appeared! We waited less than fifteen minutes before the Bittern reappeared at the edge of the left hand channel and walked ponderously across to the middle block of reeds. You can never get bored of seeing Bitterns.

We gave it another half hour or so but the Bittern didn't play ball again. A couple of Water Rails were more showy and at one point chased each other around the reeds. Light was fading when one of the Rails chose to swim across the wider central channel.

Water Rail
That evening I searched the bird news and came up with a plan to spend Sunday in Norfolk where there were potentially three year ticks for us, including a lifer.

We set off early, for us anyway, and made good progress along mainly empty roads. Driving to North Norfolk can be an arduous task from Oxfordshire so it was almost pleasant in dry conditions for a change. We were heading straight to Holkham where a Hume's Leaf Warbler, which would be a new bird for us, had been discovered a few days before. We also had Cley-next-the-sea and Titchwell in our sights for other target birds. Often as we drive out in the flatlands to the East of home we guess how many Barn Owls that we'll see on our way, sometimes we get a few but more often than not, none at all. This time we did see one while I made a lay-by stop but unfortunately it was dead and laying in the grass next to the road. Sadly passing traffic is a constant peril for low flying and hunting Barn Owls. We were hungry and thankfully found a decent enough "greasy spoon" on the outskirts of Fakenham and while there noticed that the Isabelline Wheatear, on our target list for the day, had been seen already at Cley so we changed our tactics and would head there instead of Holkham first, a more sensible plan anyway since we'd then be furthest away from home and would be cutting the journey back throughout the day.

Ignoring the not yet open visitor centre we arrived at the eastern end of the reserve and waited while a couple of birders regained their own car and freed up a parking space. We weren't venturing onto the reserve itself so didn't need a day permit from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, sadly the only Wildlife Trust that doesn't have a reciprocal free entry agreement with members of other Wildlife Trusts. We've never been to Cley very often, I could recall just one meaningful visit before, when we walked along the same path as we did now to see some Shore Larks on the shingle beach, and that was probably fifteen years ago! In fact we've never visited North Norfolk very often at all except for Titchwell which is nearest to Oxon for us. I think we've never really fancied birding amongst the crowds and have always looked for quieter areas to go, admittedly at the cost of lots of good birds. Looking ahead of us along the path we could already see that at least twenty birders had beaten us to it and looking further away to where the Isabelline Wheatear would be, we could see another thirty or so twitchers spread out along the beach.

Today was a mission to see specific birds and we'd only have the six or seven hours of winter daylight to see them so we didn't linger long to look at much else until we reached the beach about half a mile from the car. There I clocked on to a fellow birder pointing at a small clump of grass on the shingle bank just metres away and trying to get her associates on to what she was pointing at. Sceptically I expected to see a Wren or Dunnock creeping through the grass, I had forgotten that I was in Norfolk and not Oxfordshire, so when I saw a beautiful Snow Bunting appear in view through my binoculars I was more than surprised! The last Snow Bunting I'd seen was high up a mountain in the Cairngorms back in February. Even though it wasn't required for the year list, a Snow Bunting is a scarce enough sight for an inland birder so deserved more than a passing look and this bird was barely at the minimum focussing range of my lens so just had to be admired and photographed.

Snow Bunting
But we were on that mission so reluctantly pulled ourselves away and trudged through the shingle to the Twitch another half a mile eastwards. We were momentarily halted again when I noticed a Red-throated Diver on the sea. Unlike the summer plumaged adult that we'd seen on our last day in Cornwall last month, this bird was a juvenile and in winter plumage so was decked out in shades of grey but still very nice to see.

Red-throated Diver
We joined the twitchers along the sea wall and scanned the fence posts and the grassy ground beneath them for the Isabelline Wheatear but couldn't see it. Luckily the chap stood to my left could however, and it didn't take long before I found the bird tucked away in the spindly grass behind the fence. The Isabelline Wheatear, #282 on the Old Caley year list, was our second of the species after one in Cornwall in 2016.

Isabelline Wheatear
According to several reports over the previous day or so, the Wheatear was deemed to be "not long for this world" and was maybe as pale as the legendary Isabella's shift because of that ill health. Certainly our initial views backed that theory up since the Issy was doing very little at all and did appear more than a bit hunched up and disconsolate looking. But after a while it ran towards the grass on our side of the fence and began hunting for insects in the "dash and run" style that Wheatears are renowned for. At least now we could see the bird clearly and I was able to gain some decent record shots.

Then the Isabelline Wheatear did the other thing that Wheatears are particularly good at and perched dutifully up on one of the fence posts. The wind was out of the South, the direction we were looking in, so the Wheatear was perched with its back to us. This gave me the chance to scrutinise its tail pattern which is, of course, a reliable way to discriminate between some of the various Wheatear species. Isabelline Wheatears have a broad black terminal band to the tail and this was evident when the bird flicked its tail downward.

The Wheatear stood pretty much motionless on the post for what seemed like ages so I diverted my attention to the sea for a few minutes. The usual suspects were evident, Gannets and Herring Gulls flying past and a couple of Guillemots cresting the gentle waves, but best of all was a long train of Common Scoters that were heading westwards.

Common Scoter
But we'd come for the Isabelline Wheatear and I wanted to get a few more photos before we legged it off away to our next target bird. It was still on the same post but very obligingly soon flew off back towards the grass again allowing me to grab a distant flight shot. The Wheatear now appeared to be feeding well so any concerns for its wellbeing were evaporating somewhat. However, an over eager birder encroached just a little too closely and the Issy was disturbed and flew over the fence and back into the long grasses and weeds inside the reserve.

Thinking that would be the end of the show I went for a quick look along the beach. East of the reserve the pebble and shingle stretches out for miles and there didn't seem to be anything bird wise anywhere along it. I was watching a few Ducks and Geese flying overhead when I noticed a blurred movement to my right and looked just in time to see the Isabelline Wheatear land on the shingle ridge just inside the fence and only twenty metres or so from where I was stood. I was alone having left Mrs Caley gazing out to sea and none of the other birders had seen the bird land. I crawled along the beach on my knees and acquired one of the low fence posts to use as a tripod and took some shots of the Wheatear. It seemed that there was little food available out on the pebbles so the Isabelline in turns just stood looking around or took time out preening.

It didn't take long for a couple of other birders to notice that I had the bird and, in response to them walking none too stealthily along the beach, the Isabelline Wheatear flew off further along the pebbles. I took that as our cue to leave, we'd exceeded my original intended stay with the Wheatear, and it was already past 11 o'clock. There were other birds to see! The Snow Bunting, fortunately in view of the time, was nowhere to be seen, perhaps it had rejoined the flock of fifty that were supposedly around somewhere on the beach. We walked briskly (ha!) back along the embankment to the car, pausing only briefly to capture a Little Egret in flight, not that I've never taken any shots of a flying Little Egret before.

Little Egret
Just outside of Wells-next-the-Sea we pulled into a lay-by alongside a couple of other birders cars. There was a bonus bird present on offer here, not a year tick since we'd seen one in the first week of January. That Rough-legged Buzzard in Cambridgeshire was a lifer for us at the time so the juvenile bird perched up in a small bush at the far side of the field in front of us was now our second. At around 400 metres away it was at least a quarter as far away as our first! Great views indeed but I now had an identifiable photo of a Rough-legged Buzzard!

Rough-legged Buzzard
Our next destination was Holkham Pines, a place we'd never visited before. After coughing up six and a half quid to park for up to four hours it's probably a place that we'll never visit again! As I waited for Mrs Caley to gear up ready I took a few shots of a pair of Egyptian Geese that were busy feeding on a flooded field next to the car park.

Egyptian Geese
I asked some returning birders whether the Hume's Leaf Warbler was showing. Their reply was positive but came with the advice that, "It's a long way!" They weren't kidding either, it was nearly half an hour later when we joined the twenty or so other twitchers stood by a group of sallows. We are not the quickest walkers. At the calls of "there it is" and "there, moving left through those brambles" and so on the assembled moved from one side of the sallows to the other. After ten minutes of that and having had a fleeting view I decided that we'd be better off stationing ourselves in front of a likely looking area and staying put. Five minutes later we'd both had our first ever views of, not one but two, Hume's Leaf Warblers, #283 for the year, although my best photo wasn't up to much!

Hume's Leaf Warbler
The two birds had moved quickly through the trees and were heading left of us. A shout went up again from a birder who could see them tracking through the foliage so it seemed sensible to move to the other end of the sallow clump. There we were able to position ourselves next to a slightly more open part of the trees where hopefully the birds would appear and we'd be able to get better views. Over the next few minutes many small birds did show, Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits and Goldcrests, and someone said they'd spotted a Firecrest but no small warblers appeared. Then right at the back of the tallest sallow there was some movement and one of the Hume's Warblers was there and then gone again before I could raise the camera. The Warbler was calling although I could barely hear it over the chitter chatter of the other birders who soon moved back to the other end en masse since somebody said they had seen the Hume's back there. We remained in the same spot along with just one other birder. A couple of minutes later and the Hume's Leaf warbler was back in the same tree and this time I managed a few shots although the bird was always obscured by leaves and twigs.

At least now we could appreciate the more subdued tones of the Hume's in comparison with Yellow-browed Warblers which are much brighter coloured above and more gleaming white below. My impression was that, maybe because I was having a tough time in securing a decent photo, the Hume's was much quicker moving than a Yellow-browed and stuck to the branches more with less hovering and "snatching" of insects. We had more views, this time low down in the bushes and at one point did get a rear view of the bird hovering which would have made a great photo, had I been ready and fast enough, which I wasn't. A few of the other hopefuls had cottoned on to the fact that we had the bird in view and rejoined us but we now had the advantage of a raised mound to stand on which gave us an elevated viewpoint. Then suddenly we had some luck, one of the Hume's Warblers appeared in a "hole" in the tangle of bushes of brambles which was only visible to us because we had that lofty viewpoint. I put the camera into overdrive, thirty shots taken over maybe 5 seconds in all, before the Hume's fled back into the dense foliage. A quick check of the back of the camera confirmed that I'd secured some decent shots albeit that they'd be grainy because of high ISO settings required for the murky conditions.

As mentioned the main difference between Hume's Leaf warblers and Yellow-browed Warblers, other than the voice, is that more subdued plumage. The double wing bars are buffy coloured on Hume's, with the smaller leading one almost indiscernible, and the supercilium is also buff, it's obviously yellow on a Yellow-browed. The Hume's Warbler has a very feint crown stripe which is unusual in Yellow-browed's. 

We had been at the Hume's Warblers favoured sallow clump for only just over half an hour but rather than linger in the hope for better images, which would be difficult anyway I thought, and because we still had another bird targeted for the day, we left and started on the long walk back to the car. At the car park my attention was drawn to the loud calling of a flock of Pink-footed Geese that were whiffling around and down on to one of the fields and I took a couple of mist affected atmospheric shots. Apparently the Pink-footed Geese flocks contained other more unusual species, a couple of White-fronted Geese and some Bean Geese, but I didn't even consider that they'd be anything other than Pinkies!

Pink-footed Geese
It was past two o'clock when we left Holkham but I went back to Wells just a mile down the road to see if the Rough-legged Buzzard had decided to leave the bush in which it had perched when we looked a few hours before. It hadn't so we turned straight around and went to find a coffee and a bowl of chips for lunch. When we entered the cafe at Brancaster it was almost sunny, when we re-emerged thirty minutes later it was raining! What is it with the bloody weather this autumn? Titchwell RSPB was our final destination of the day but by the time we had reached the car park there the rain had gotten heavier and we debated heading home. After a bit of mind wrestling we eventually decided that seeing as we were in Norfolk we may as well keep going so donned the waterproofs and wellies once more and intrepidly made our way to the fresh marsh where we'd seen a lifer in the form of a Semi-palmated Sandpiper back in July. We were looking this time for a Water Pipit to add to the year list, not a rare bird but one that is very uncommon back in Oxon. We checked into the Island Hide where several other birders had the same idea of shelter in mind and gazed out into the increasing gloom and out onto the marsh. The usual suspects, Avocets, Lapwings, Golden Plovers and Ducks were all close to the hide but I couldn't see any smaller birds out there. 

Golden Plover
I set up the scope and scanned far and wide without much success and was starting to get despondent thinking that the weather gods had transpired against us yet again. Then I noticed a few Pied Wagtails and in amongst them was a Pipit. We were probably a hundred metres away since the birds were closer to the Parrinder Hide and I couldn't decide on the poor views that I had if the Pipit was of the Water variety at that distance. So we had to get wet once more and leg it around to the further hide. It was getting quite dark when we reached there and it took me a few minutes to locate the bird but, thankfully, it did prove to be a Water Pipit and we had #284 on our year list! Water Pipits are superficially very similar to Rock Pipits but the supercilium and wing bars are better defined and the overall plumage is paler. Not that it's very easy to see that on my images which were taken in the near dark!

Water Pipit
So after an awkward start to the weekend we ended up with three year ticks and a lifer to boot as well as lots of other good birds too. Norfolk certainly paid off!