Wednesday 28 December 2022

A Norfolk Tonic. 3 December 2022.

The last week of November was bombed out. On the Saturday we were stuck indoors for most of the day, and only ventured out to waste a couple of hours looking for some non-existent Waxwings near Northampton. Then on the Sunday we sat in a freezing cold hide at Hanningfield Reservoir in Essex along with many other twitchers hoping to see a Spotted Sandpiper which resolutely refused to show for the three hours that we shivered while staring out at next to nothing. The fact that the bird then reappeared when we were three-quarters of the way home only deepened our gloom. We couldn't afford many more blank days if we were to see the 6 birds that we still needed to reach the magic 300.

There were still a couple (or three) of birds that we shouldn't have any trouble in getting onto the year list, provided we were willing to travel to see them. Norfolk was hosting a small wintering flock of Shore Larks which should be obtainable and there was always a chance of something else there. Waxwings were arriving in the UK, albeit in small numbers and mainly up in Scotland (certainly not in Northants), so we could feasibly twitch one or more, although there would be a good chance that there would eventually be some further south, but would our nerve hold? Water Pipit was another species that we could "chase" but we'd already failed twice at twitching one this winter. Otherwise, if we were really desperate, we could travel much further, up to Scotland perhaps, and secure some late additions.

Our plans for the first Saturday of December were finally swayed by the fact that our resolve regarding Waxwings didn't hold. We couldn't afford to wait for some to come within touching distance of home so we headed to Norfolk for the day on the strength of there being a flock of 9 of the exotic looking winter wanderers from further north at Sheringham. While in Norfolk we could add the Shore Larks too and if time permitted, check other sites for anything else of interest. The Waxwings had been feasting on the berries of a group of Rowan trees on Bestow Common and had been fairly reliable for a week now. My good friend Jim (The Standlake Birder) travelled to see them on the Friday and seeing his photos helped to determine Sheringham as our first choice of destination. We'd hopefully see the Waxwings and then travel back to Holkham for the Shore Larks.

As we travelled eastwards towards the Norfolk coast, a quick stop at a services gave me a chance to peruse the Bird News and I saw confirmation that the Waxwings were still present and correct in the favoured Rowan trees. Waxwings are usually very bold and confiding birds, and once they've found suitable feeding trees tend to stick around until the berry crop is exhausted. According to Jim, there were over a dozen of Rowans bearing millions of berries so we were very confident that we'd see the birds. 

Unbelievably the beautiful sunny weather that had hampered our view out of the windscreen as we chugged along, had been swept away by some ugly black clouds by the time we arrived at Sheringham, and we were greeted by a full-on hailstorm! We sat huddled in the car until the squall had passed but unfortunately the sun didn't reappear afterwards and we would be trying, and frequently failing, to dodge wintry showers for the rest of the day. Not exactly sure where the Rowan trees were, I asked a guy who had similarly taken refuge from the weather in his own vehicle. He said that he'd been watching the Waxwings just before the deluge and that the trees were just the other side of the hedge by which we'd parked. We made our way through a gap in the hedge to arrive on the other side into a totally different world. The Common was steeped in bracken clumps within which stood the Rowan trees, resplendently decked out with tiny berries. If I had the good fortune to live close to the Common then I'd come here on Christmas Day. I wished I'd retained enough nous to take a photo. But I didn't.

The berries were of course what attracted the Waxwings to the area and as beautiful as the trees looked they weren't the reason we were there. The birds were. Unfortunately though we couldn't for the moment at least, see any Waxwings. There were Fieldfares and Redwings eating the berries, and an army of Blackbirds defending one particular tree against all comers. We also saw Bullfinches and Starlings snacking out on berries but no Waxwings. So we went wandering and I thought I saw a lone Waxwing fly into a Silver Birch with some Starlings but the light (what there was of it) was against and the bird had alighted on the far side of the tree so was mostly obscured. I'm not usually wrong and I do possess some of that birders sixth sense so I was pretty sure of my identification skills. The bird flew though before Mrs Caley had seen it and for our year list, except in exceptional circumstances, we both had to see a bird in order to count it. So that bird went unrecorded.

Luckily Mrs Caley was on it more than me that morning and she spotted Waxwings at the top of a tree close to the neighbouring houses. There were 9 so the whole flock had returned. We were at the far side of the Rowans from the birds so we walked quickly (that's an Old Caley oxymoron) to the other side so that I could gain a few record shots of the Waxwings and we gratefully added them to the year list. We were edging closer to our target.

(Bohemian) Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

Waxwings are exquisite. A heady mix of pink, grey and black with a red vent and yellow tips to the wings and tail. The Waxwing name comes from the little red tips to the wing feather shafts that glisten like the Rowan berries that they love to eat. These red waxy appendages are most prominent on the adult male birds and a quick check of this flock showed there to be a mix of male and females plus a couple of first-winters (lacking the yellow). The (not often used) prefix Bohemian means either from Bohemia (an old name for a region of Czechia, which is a new name for the Czech Republic) or someone or something that is unconventional and "arty". I have no idea which one lent the meaning to the Waxwing name, and I don't really care. Just Waxwing is good enough for me. We waited for the flock to fly out of the tree which they duly did. That allowed me to grab some flight images which showed those waxy wing tips to the full. If you look really hard, that is.

Every birder and togger wants to see Waxwings munching on berries and every togger really wants to get photos of the birds chucking berries in the air or finely manipulating a berry at the bill tip prior to swallowing. Unfortunately if you want to see some of my photos of a Waxwing doing that then you'll have to look at previous posts (for example here) because this flock of Waxwings showed no interest in feasting at all and were unusually extremely flighty. The only photos I got were of flying birds or of the flock perched in the highest trees.

Around an hour after we arrived the flock of 9 birds flew up from the tree that they perched in several times, wheeled around above our heads, and then climbed higher and disappeared westwards. It wasn't worth us staying any longer for them to return since we'd seen them, there'd be other chances to see Waxwings before the winter was out and the fact that a couple of chaps turned up wielding hedge cutting equipment meant that the birds would be highly unlikely to revisit the Rowan trees that day. In the event the Waxwings weren't seen there again after that morning anyway, so we were right to leave and go elsewhere.

We were headed for Holkham Gap, a traditional wintering site for our next target species, Shore Larks. They, and other birds like Snow Buntings choose to feed on the low coastal vegetation there. The half hour drive across country was undertaken through another downpour which only abated when we neared the coast again. As we drew up close to Lady Anne's Drive, Mrs Caley (no doubt excited to know that a road has been named in her honour) suddenly shouted, "What's that in the trees?" I'd already passed so I turned the wagon around in a driveway that had signage indicating "No Turning". I am such a rebel sometimes. We'd been talking about a White-tailed Eagle as we drove towards Holkham because one had been seen in the area during the preceding few weeks. Mrs Caley knew it wasn't an Eagle but called out because the bird she'd seen was very pale. As I retraced our route I guessed what the bird may be, and Marsh Harrier, Grey Heron, even Osprey amongst others were suggested. Turning around in a field entrance I could see the striking pale bird perched in a low tree and for a moment thought that we had something special. I grabbed the camera first and fired off a few shots in case the bird flew before checking it through binoculars. It was a bird of prey and it was definitely a Buzzard but try as I might I couldn't raise it any higher than a pale morph Common Buzzard. [There is a footnote to this story and it is as follows; a Rough-legged Buzzard has been reported in the last couple of days (I write this blog just after Christmas), thinking that the reports may have been contributed to this bird, I rechecked my identification, but I was still pretty certain it was a Common, so I posted a photo of it on Twitter and a couple of the folk who had reported a Rough-legged admitted that it probably was the same bird. Raptor ID is not an easy sport]

pale morph Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Lady Anne's Drive is a long straight road that should be renamed Lady Anne's (rip-off) Carpark. It leads down from the A149 to the belt of coniferous woodland known as Holkham Pines. Like most coastal places in Norfolk, it's famous for hosting a very rare bird at some point in the last fifty years. Holkham Pines achieved notoriety for being the site that a (North American) Red-breasted Nuthatch chose to stay in for 206 days from the 13/10/1989. Unfortunately for me, that was way before my birding time came along. I was still watching football back then. Mrs Caley and I had twitched at Holkham before though, in November 2019, when during a (failed) "Big Year" attempt (we ended up on 289 that year) we successfully saw two Hume's Leaf Warblers (read here) which were life ticks at the time. I remember being stunned by the parking charges then. They've gone up since and it's now a horrific sick (and a half) squid to park there for just four hours. There's a reason why I don't come to Holkham Pines very often. I can't afford to. There's another reason too, and that is because the place gets overrun with dogs and their handlers, except for the most part the dogs aren't actually handled by anybody and run freely all over the place. Because of that you have to watch your step.

Fortunately it was pouring with rain again and the inclement conditions had kept most folk away (or maybe they were saving their money for Christmas). For the second time that day we sat in the car and waited for the shower to pass. We are fair weather birders for sure but what's the point of getting soaked if you don't have to? There'd be plenty of other times when we wouldn't have a choice (including later on that afternoon). As soon as the rain had dissipated we geared up and marched towards the Holkham Gap, a break in the dunes where a small stream trickled through on its way to the North Sea. Once out of the shelter of the trees and onto the sands the icy winds hit us and we went into full survival mode, which for me is putting a wooly hat on. It would have to properly arctic for me to don gloves.

The walk to the "Roped-off Area", a small section of salt marsh protected by a single strand of rope and a few signs, and intended to keep people and dogs out which is well intended but I'm not aware of too many dogs that can actually read (although I am aware of quite a few folk that obviously can't or at least choose not to), looked quite short on the map but was actually further than I imagined and seemed even longer walking into the strong winds. We could see the weather approaching straight towards us as well and it was soon apparent that we'd soon be entering into one of those times when we would have no choice but to get wet. Just as we reached the first warning signs, the rain began to sting our faces. We turned our backs to the wet weather, and stood there grinning it and baring nothing. The rain thankfully didn't last long so we were able to resume our search for the Shore Larks. We walked around the perimeter of the "Roped-off Area" almost twice before I spotted them, and then only because the flock of 12 flew in from another part of the salt marsh. Still, I was grateful that they'd come to see us and now I could find them on the deck and grab a few more record shots for the day. I wasn't that interested in staying too long, call me soft but I fancied getting dry and warm again in the car.

Shore Lark (Eromophila alpestris)

I had brought the scope along so we were able to get good views of the Shore Larks. I have some terrific photographs of the species already so I didn't need to add to my portfolio. We also found around ten or so Snow Buntings on the opposite side of the set aside area but I have good photos of those too, and had seen some at the top of Cairngorm this summer so didn't worry about getting any closer to them. Much better was the Lapland Bunting that flew over our heads yelling its little "prrrt" call over the noise of the wind. It landed in amongst the Snow Buntings and I had one quick view of it before it tore off with its winter mates. Just as well too because I really didn't fancy walking all the way around again. However, the Lapland Bunting was a terrific bonus bird for the day, and there's no rule saying that you must get crippling views and photographs of every bird that you see.

On the walk back I regularly checked the salt marsh for the Bunting flock but I never saw them again. There were other birds eking out a living though, with Meadow Pipits, Linnets and Black-tailed Godwits all represented. There was more stuff out on the sea, a Slavonian grebe and a Puffin were reported out there but we couldn't be bothered with it in the conditions. I was amazed to see a very hardy couple in swimsuits dipping in the frigid water and I noted a Seal looking equally as perplexed as I was by the two (daft) swimmers. Brrrr! Back at the car the fields were full of Wigeon and several flocks of Pink-footed Geese were whiffling down to their roost sites.

Probably because we'd spent too much time sheltering in the car from the hail and rain, we'd run out of time. It was getting dark and the other bird that we thought about targeting, a Pallid Harrier at Warham Greens was now out of reach. We'd probably visit again before the year was out but after adding three more to our year list and now needing only three more to achieve the main goal, hopefully we'd get those in the next couple of weekends, so that our next trip to Norfolk would be pressure free.

Year List additions;

295) Waxwing, 296) Shore Lark, 297) Lapland Bunting

Tuesday 27 December 2022

November can be a Rare Old Month, Part 2. 19-20 November 2022

Our tails were up again and we were full of optimism that, with a bit of extra effort, we would achieve our "Big Year" goal. The double success of last weekend had renewed that confidence after we'd lost our way quite a bit, after having an enforced two week lay off. Eight more birds were needed and we still had six weeks including the Christmas holiday to get them.

Another rare Wheatear had been found on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. The Isabelline Wheatear there had been present for at least two weeks and had been showing well for most of that time. Initially I wasn't moved to go for it because it's a long drive (mainly off motorway so a slow drag too) and because we'd seen two of them before, in Cornwall and Norfolk. However, buoyed by the successful twitch to see the Pied Wheatear on Tyneside last Saturday, we decided that we should make the 220 mile drive each way. We'd only regret it later on if we didn't.

Once we'd passed Shrewsbury and turned left, the drive was actually a delight and it was nice to be off more familiar routes and motorways. The journey took us over the moors and lower hills along the southern edge of the Snowdonia National Park. Mist in the lower valleys and bright sunshine higher up was reflected in temperatures as low as freezing. We passed through towns such as Bala and Transfynydd and past the lakes of the same names. Places we had visited on previous holidays appeared on signposts so we relived some old memories of those times, we used to visit Snowdonia a lot but then discovered Scotland (sorry Wales, we still love you too). Porthmadog announced our arrival to The Lleyn, a beautiful part of the country but a region we've only visited sporadically over the years. Our destination, Uwchmynydd, lies right at the western end of The Lleyn Peninsula and overlooks the well known (amongst birders anyway) island of Bardsey which is famous for attracting many rare birds and also for its large seabird populations during the summer especially Manx Shearwaters. A little over four hours after leaving home we pulled onto a barely noticeable grassy car parking area. It was a good job we'd brought some sustenance with us because this far west at this time of year there was nothing open that offered anything to eat or drink at half-ten in the morning.

Bardsey Island from Uwchmynydd

From the carpark it was a ten minute stroll downhill to the area on the headland where the Isabelline Wheatear would be. The bird had been reported just ten minutes before we arrived so we knew it was still there and as the wide expanse of a grassy clifftop came into view we could see five other birders stood below us. Even from a hundred metres away we could the Wheatear scampering around on the grass just a few metres away from its admirers. A few minutes later we were also stood there and I secured record shots of our 293rd bird of 2022.

Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina)

The Isabelline Wheatear, a beautiful mix of cream, beige and ochre colours with a black eyestripe, eye and bill was hunting the short turf for worms and invertebrates. Wheatears hunt for food by standing tall and still until they spot something then they dash quickly towards the prey and secure it. Plovers also hunt in that fashion and at times this Isabelline Wheatear reminded me a little bit of a Dotterel which also favours similar habitat at certain times of the year. Only a little bit though.

We said hello to a chap we've met on several twitches this year and Mrs Caley entertained him while I sidled a bit closer to the Wheatear so that I could get some even closer shots. I was laid on my considerable belly so not quite flat to the ground but my stealth was working well and the bird appeared unfazed by my presence, well it was until a togger with a big lens strode past my left shoulder even closer to the bird which obviously then flew off further up the grassy slope. Some folk just don't seem to grasp the idea of good fieldcraft and boundaries.

I stood up and walked around the cliff so as to approach the Wheatear from below which would be less likely to surprise or unsettle it. While stalking towards the Wheatear I noticed a couple of Choughs feeding quietly on the short turf. The only views we'd had of Chough, on Anglesey and in Cornwall, this year were distant and I hadn't gained a decent photo of any of them. So I turned my attention to the two gorgeous and charismatic members of the Crow family that were now stood barely fifty feet away from me. Just as I started reeling off some shots, the closest of the pair suddenly looked up and "Cheowed," that wonderful cry that onomatopoetically gave the species its name. 

Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

An instant later both birds were flying, and almost directly at me. I took my chance and captured as many shots as I could before the birds had passed me. I was less pleased when I looked up from my viewfinder and saw the same chap walking straight through the area where the Choughs had been. Some folk just don't give a damn about anybody else. Thank goodness that he appeared to be leaving otherwise, to keep the peace and tranquility of the clifftops, I'd have had to shackle myself to my wife for the rest of the morning. On the other hand, my thanks go out to the ignoramus for giving me the opportunity to get some of my best Chough flight images ever!

The Isabelline Wheatear had also been disturbed by the careless and carefree birder and momentarily we had lost it but it was sure to still be around somewhere. So I spent a little bit of time watching a couple of Rock Pipits that were also feeding on the grassy clifftop. Rock Pipits are always found in places like Uwchmynydd but tend to get overlooked as dour and dull little birds, the quintessential "Little Brown Jobs" that birders talk about. Look closely though and you see a beautiful blend of grey, brown and beige sported by a bird that is both delicate but robust looking, "Rockits" are built for the extreme lifestyle that a home by the sea provides. On this beautiful morning though no major resilience was required by the pair of Pipits as they searched for food amongst the grass.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

Other birds were available, Ravens noisily croaked as they soared overhead and a Kestrel hunted the higher slopes. A pair of Stonechats flitted about a heather clad hillside and a Song Thrush crossed the clifftop. Unfortunately though, I missed the best of the rest because I was so intent on finding the Isabelline Wheatear again. I did relocate it and it was walking back towards its original position. I decided to employ great fieldcraft again in order to get close enough for more photography. This time there was no careless togger around to disturb the bird so I crept up behind a small rocky outcrop and peered over at the Wheatear waiting for it to get close enough. While my concentration was centred entirely upon the Wheatear I missed the ringtail Hen Harrier that flew across the cliffs almost over my head. Mrs Caley had watched the Harrier but I couldn't see or hear her gesticulations from where I was. When she told me what I'd missed and that if she had a camera, that she could have the captured the Hen Harrier and myself in the same shot I was more than a little miffed!

Raven (Corvus corax)

I still had the Isabelline Wheatear to keep me happy and busy though, and now it was performing beautifully for me just a few metres away. The sun was shining and everything was peachy. Mrs Caley remained sat by the cliff edge rocks and watched on as the Wheatear did its thing, hunting invertebrates by stealth and making dash and grab snatches. For the most part I was alone photographing the bird, three of the birders had already left and our friend from Somerset had wandered off somewhere else. If the Issy had turned up in a more accessible spot there would have been dozens of birders and toggers watching the bird. Here on the edge of Wales there was blissfully just us.

As is my usual want I tried to anticipate the moments when the bird would fly so that I'd get some images of it in flight. That proved to be very difficult although I did manage a few. I (reluctantly) needed the "couldn't give a damn" togger around to spark the Wheatear into action.

It would have been impossible though not to enjoy a bird that showed so wonderfully well and I still rattled of hundreds of frames. The Isabelline Wheatear continued to wow us for another half hour or so before it suddenly decided to fly onto the bracken slope and out of view. It had had enough of us (me) so it was time for us to head off on our long journey home. I'd be busy editing photographs for a few days after.

Year List addition;

293) Isabelline Wheatear