Monday, 13 January 2020

The Last (Norfolk) Twitch of the Year, 29th December 2019

The Christmas holiday season carries a double-edged sword for me. By the end of it after an "enforced" two week lay off, honestly nobody wants me in their houses over Christmas (or any other time really), I'll be skint but on the up side there's lots of time for Mrs Caley and myself to go birding!  The Old Caley year list had stagnated somewhat in the run up to Christmas, we'd run out of steam a bit and I had been very busy at work, with the most recent addition two weeks ago with the Black-throated Thrush at Whipsnade Zoo. But now we had time to twitch again and the great thing about the holiday period is that the roads are pretty much devoid of traffic, in the mornings anyway, so driving long distances is easy. I'd been looking with interest at reports of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail that had been seen near Newcastle upon Tyne and was making plans to take the 500 mile round journey to see it when another Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been found much closer to home in North-west Norfolk. The Norfolk bird was discovered just before Christmas and had appeared very settled over the next few days. 

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail at Sedgeford, near Sandringham, had the added attraction of being a fine adult male rather than the more frequently found juvenile and first winter birds, so was a bit of a looker! We arrived at the twitch site just after nine o'clock and joined the twenty or so cars parked by a farm track. Birders were already returning along the track and the news was positive, the bird was there and showing nicely. We geared up and followed the track for 400 metres to a small hardstanding where the local farmer had deposited manure and other soil into piles. The Wagtail apparently favoured these dung heaps proving yet agin that birds are quite happy to be seen in very insalubrious surroundings. Luckily the soil heaps were just that really, mostly soil rather than manure so didn't stink, which was just a swell since the stinging and cold wind was right into our faces. The weak winter sunshine also shone straight at us but offered little warmth and certainly wouldn't help much when photographing the Wagtail.

Despite several fellow observers that we met on the way relating that the Wagtail was showing well, when we arrived at the site most viewers were chatting away in groups and seemed disinterested in any goings on at the soil heaps. This usually means that the target bird is not showing so I assumed that the Wagtail had maybe flown off for a while. I was surprised then when I scanned around the area and almost immediately found the Wagtail preening in long grass at the back of the soil heaps. Before I could get Mrs Caley onto the bird though it had scarpered behind the middle heap, a recurring theme it would seem at twitches these days, my wife would have to wait a little longer for her first view of the bird. It took about fifteen minutes but the Wagtail did reappear sauntering between two of the soil piles and Mrs Caley had her view. Now we'd both seen it, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail (aka Alaskan Yellow Wagtail) made it #289 on the Old Caley year list and would most likely be the last addition for 2019. Not quite 300 as we'd begun hoping for a few months back but easily our best year total ever, beating our previous best by over 40. If we hadn't have had a few difficult personal circumstances to deal with at times during the year then we may have just about made the magic number but, hey, that's life. We've already vowed not to chase another big year list in 2020 and will concentrate on quality, in the form of new life ticks, rather than quantity.

The Alaskan Yellow Wagtail moniker comes courtesy of Dutch birders who named one, that was found in The Netherlands recently, that way. Most birders here seem to prefer Eastern Yellow Wagtail but apparently that is a blanket name for the whole species and since this male has been assigned to distinct subspecies level, namely "Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis" which breeds in Alaska as well as north-western regions of Siberia, the Alaskan prefix has been added. The bird itself has a striking blue-grey head with a prominent white supercilium and white half crescent beneath the eye. The upper parts are predominately an olive-brown colour with white-edged wing feathers while the under parts are mainly pale yellow with a few spots of brighter yellow. The bill is black based with a pinkish tip and the legs are blackish grey. The bird was walking towards us so I started to gain a few record shots for this blog.

However we were in luck when the Wagtail, after being harassed by a Pied Wagtail, suddenly flew up and over our heads, circled around and landed on the concrete hardstanding just ten or so metres away. Mine and a few others cameras went into overdrive as the Wagtail stood motionless and gazed around, making sure that its tormentor was out of the way.

Next the Wagtail trotted over to a weedy area and commenced feeding, pecking away at the rough grasses. Several times we saw it secure a small worm or grub but mostly the bird was hard to observe in the vegetation.

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail then delighted its admirers once more by flitting up close and feeding along the edge of a muddy puddle. In the days leading up to our visit I had seen many photos of the Wagtail but none had been really show-stopping since the bird had always appeared to have remained on the soil heaps at the far side of the yard and had clearly not come as close as it was now. We had great views this morning and the only factor counting against us was the greyness of the day, although the sun was threatening to put in an appearance which it needed to because it was more than a little bit chilly!

An arrival of a small flock of Chaffinches put paid to our fun since the Wagtail was spooked and flew into the long grass behind the soil heaps again. The forty or so twitchers present all at one broke into excited chatter in contrast to the quiet, camera shutters excepted, of previously. Now there was a lull Mrs Caley and myself discussed plans for the remainder of the day and whether to stay much longer for more of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail which was clearly still present and just out of view. We decided on another half hour and then we would go and spend the afternoon watching Short-eared Owls at a site in Cambridgeshire where the Owls are supposed to show well. 

Staying a bit longer turned out to be a good decision when a few minutes later the Wagtail returned to the concrete apron right in front of us again. The light had improved too so now there was opportunity to get even better shots. After perusing its surroundings once more Mr Wagtail this time moved on to one of the muddy puddles to feed and then obligingly posed on a small branch and then a rock. I even grabbed a few, blurry admittedly, flight images. It really was performing like a model at a photo shoot giving myself and the rest the full gamut of poses. I do like birds that help you out by being so accommodating.

Finished with the puddle the Wagtail then delighted us even more by walking almost right up to us and the views and photos improved to "crippling" quality. This must have been unprecedented behaviour by this bird and even low shutter speeds couldn't stop even me getting some nice shots. I was still surprised though, and chuffed of course, when Birdguides rewarded one of my efforts with a "Notable Photo" award, shown at the top of this account.

When the Wagtail fled back behind the heaps of soil, we did decide to leave for some birding elsewhere. We had been on site for maybe an hour and a half and it wouldn't get any better, it couldn't. Walking back to the car we were beckoned by a chap who introduced himself as a fellow Oxon birder, well met Karl, who had seen us at Otmoor a few weeks back. He was staying in Norfolk for the holiday season and told us, amongst other bird news, that the Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells had been showing really well and close the day before. Our views a few weeks ago, when we'd taken it in along with the Isabelline Wheatear and Hume's Warblers, had been distant across a field and the Buzzard hadn't budged from its perch in a bush. To see it flying close to would be a nice bonus. We had only seen our first ever Rough-legged Buzzard in January this year and although we did get flight views they were from around a mile away! I checked Wells into the SatNav and discovered it was only 16 miles away so it became a no-brainer to go and have another look. The Shorties would have to wait until next year.

We parked up and joined a few other birders in the lay-by that overlooks the field but there was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard. Toby, a young and excellent birder who we've met several times at Frampton Marsh where he spent last summer, told us that the Rough-legged hadn't shown at all that morning and that there were just Common Buzzards and a Marsh Harrier active. Fairly typical, I thought, since we had hoped that after talking to Karl that it would be a cinch! But Toby was thanking us for turning up less than two minutes later when the Rough-legged Buzzard suddenly appeared and landed in the middle of the field. Voila! Unfortunately, and despite Mrs Caley continually and very helpfully pointing out the Rough-legged's position in the field, by the time I had managed to get the camera cocked and ready to fire the bird had flown off and back to its favourite bush on the embankment which meant that we were left with same old distant views that we'd had a few weeks before. 

Last time the Rough-legged Buzzard had resolutely refused to leave the said bush despite much billing and cooing from me and for the next half hour this time it stayed put once again. Then it flew into the branches of a tree where it was very difficult to see and pick out. I managed one distant, slightly better than useless shot, as it flew off.

Another half hour passed without the Rough-legged Buzzard moving from the tree so we gave up. I was just pulling away in the car when a tap at the window stopped, another birder telling me that the Rough-legged was flying again. Phew, nearly missed it! 

Now the raptor was actively hunting giving us nice flight views through the optics but not close views since the bird was hunting along its favoured embankment at the far side of the field. If I'd been ready earlier then I'd have caught some half decent shots of the Buzzard flying in front of us at half the distance it was now. But at least I did mange to add a few flight images to my pitiful Rough-legged Buzzard collection and they were a vast improvement on the ones that I managed back in January. More to the point it was enjoyable to witness a spectacular and unfamiliar bird of prey perform the whole spectrum of hunting techniques with much hovering interspersing the more normal gliding and soaring. Rough-legged Buzzards are well known for spending much of their air time hovering in Kestrel like fashion. 

This would prove to be our last trip outside of our local area in 2019 and the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was our final life and year tick as well. We ended up on the #289 species for the year, #285 if you disallow a few of the ducks and stuff. Not a bad effort and, I repeat, not one that we'll be trying to beat in 2020........


  1. some fab photos of the wagtail Nick! Interested to know what lifers you'll be targeting?

  2. Thanks Mick. Definitely seabirds! Still never seen any large Shearwaters so have to change that situation. And autumn Warblers, eg Arctic, Greenish etc. Taking a bit of a break for a month or two now.