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"!)
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 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.
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.
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.
|Hume's Leaf Warbler
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!