Monday, 27 January 2014

Norfolk and Suffolk, 17th-19th January 2014

The third weekend of the year and it's another weekend devoted entirely to birding. That's 3 of out 3 for 2014. That can't last...

This time it was three days in Norfolk. It's always a pleasure coming down here in winter, and especially when staying at my mate Chris's tip top B&B Providence Place in Sheringham. I took the Friday off work and set off from home around 05:00. As ever with early starts, the first bird heard was a Robin singing at the services on the A1 in Nottinghamshire.

I arrived at Wolferton Triangle (just west off the A149, south of Dersingham) just after dawn and kerb-crawled for the elusive Golden Pheasant while dodging Munjacs. It did take long before it showed on the north side by the crossroads sign (as last year). I say "it" because as far as I can tell there have been no reports of two birds being seen together once 2010 when two adults were seen. One of those was probably the immature bird seen in 2006. I've seen one bird every year since February 2010, when I thought I may have seen two separate individuals. The lack of females and I matures seen recently suggests the species' days are numbered, at this site at least. Either way, it such a striking bird and worth checking on if you're passing.

 Golden Pheasant, Wolferton, Norfolk - Friday 17th January 2014

I called in a few sites as I headed for Thornham Staithe: 19+ Curlew by the A149 near Norfolk Lavender; 50+ Oystercatcher on the grass at Hunstanton cliffs car park; 2 Red-legged Partridge at Ringstead. Thorham itself was quiet. The tide was out, so the waders were too. Plenty of Dark-bellied Brent Geese and Shelduck around though, and my first Meadow Pipit, Little Egret and Marsh Harrier of the year.

Titchwell was relatively quiet too, both in bird and human terms, though on the same day last year I was the only person on the reserve for a time. A couple of Marsh Harrier were the only raptors I saw. The waders were good, with Avocet (20), Lapwing (1000+), Snipe (2), Black-tailed Godwit (30+ on Freshmarsh), Bar-tailed Godwit ("a few" on the beach), a single female Ruff, plus Golden Plover, Dunlin, Redshank... Plenty of Pintail, Shoveler, Teal and Wigeon around, and (perhaps surprisingly) my first Tufted Duck and Pochard of the year. The distant sea had 300+ Common Scoter (I could not pick out any Velvets, especially with the very choppy sea being so far out), 8+ Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers, a probable Black-throated Diver in the distance. Highlights were the ten Twite feeding on the mud and the showy Water Rail in the ditch near the visitor centre.

 Water Rail, Titchwell, Norfolk - Friday 17th January 2014

 What's left of the boardwalk at Titchwell - Friday 17th January 2014

Next stop Holkham for some goose action. Shed loads of Pink-footed Goose plus Greylags all around Lady Anne's Drive. A cluster of White-fronted Goose in the corner were the best sight. I love watching geese.

The light was fading and I decided I'd have a crack at the Glossy Ibis being reported at Cley. I checked over the fields from Wiverton to Cley windmill in vain. The gen on the ground was the bird was tricky and hadn't been seen all afternoon. At that moment it was reported going to roost north if the A149. A search up that way brought only the dependable Barn Owl hunting low over the reeds and dykes. Not a bad day. Then it was off to Chris and Wendy's for as much booze as I could swallow…

After cooking me an awesome breakfast on Saturday, Chris joined me for a day of birding. We'd planned to start in the Yare Valley for Taiga Bean Goose;  but there hadn't been any reports of the geese being in the traditional sites around Cantley and Buckenham, perhaps due to the mild and wet weather. The only Bean Geese reported were at Minsmere in Suffolk. It was bit further than we'd hoped to go, but off we went (getting a cracking view of a roadside Barn Owl in a dead tree as we did).

Despite being mid-morning by the time we arrived, it still hadn't really got light. The Scrape at Minsmere was relatively quiet with only the expected ducks, Lapwing and Dunlin. There was no doubt more hiding in the gloom somewhere, beyond my scope tolerance. We headed to the sluice gate on the sea wall and looked over the South Levels. Plenty to see, but very distant. Fortunately, someone had picked out the three Taiga Bean Goose already and got us on to them. They were sleeping on the water (never seen a Bean Goose swimming before), but one did wake up and show us its long dark neck. A Peregrine was sat on a nearby post, casting its eye around. We now had gen on some winter swans from nearby Whin Hill, so headed back to the car by a different route. 

View over Minsmere from the sea wall - Saturday 18th January 2014

Around ten swans were relaxing in the far distance from the levels from the Whin Hill watchpoint. Most had their heads in, so differentiating between Bewick's and Whoppers was going to be tricky/impossible. It was possible to check the two which were up and feeding. These had log necks and noticeable yellow on their bills, so Whooper Swans they were. Chris hadn't been out birding yet this year, and was lapping up all the year ticks, both easy and hard (Bean Goose, Robin, Whooper Swan, Moorhen, etc)...

We headed north up the coast to Great Yarmouth for traditional wintering sites for Mediterranean Gull and Snow Bunting. Just as we headed past Pakefiled (south of Lowestoft) a report came in of a Snow Bunting flock on the beach there - perfect timing. The flock of 30+ (the report said 60) was easy to find, as they were being flushed by dogs and their owners. The black-white-brown pattern as they fly is a joy to watch. I suspect the ground had been seeded as the flock kept returning to one small area time and again.

 Snow Bunting, Pakefield, Suffolk - Saturday 18th January 2014

We tried unsuccessfully for some reported Shore Lark north of Great Yarmouth, getting only Skylark for our trouble. Then watched Mediterranean Gulls around the pier while we enjoyed chip buttes.

We got to Stubb Mill in good time (I hadn't dropped my phone in Great Yarmouth this year, so didn't need to double back…), and from the crowded viewpoint had 20+ Marsh Harrier come in to roost. I didn't see a Han Harrier come in, but a guy to my right claimed one. We had decent views of a Common Crane on the deck. Collectively the crowd could see three birds on the ground, but we could only see one. No matter because as we returned to the car park we heard Cranes calling and looked up through a fortuitous gap in the hedge to see two flying in low over the field. One of the best views I've had of these in flight.

Sunday started with an even more awesome breakfast from Wendy. D'ya know, a lot of birders get really sniffy about other birders mentioning their breakfast in their blogs. "It's mostly about what he had for breakfast, and hardly any mention of the birds, blah, blah...". Well, whatever. Here's my "Dude's Breakfast", as a good fry up before setting out should be called:

Yum yum...

First target was the Cley Glossy Ibis, which proved pretty straightforward, despite the heavy rain. It was feeding in the field by the road just northwest of the Three Swallows pub. A bit distant to photograph, and too far and too wet to appreciate the glossy plumage. Always a nice bird to see though. We then continued the twitching vibe with a trip to refind Parrot Crossbills at Edgefeild near Holt. The sun had come out by now, but this didn't help us find any type of Crossbills in what was a large area. Two Red Kite, two Common Buzzard, Goldcrest and Treecreeper were the best (only?) birds we got.

Having done a lot of the coast on Friday and Saturday, we decided a trip to Sculthorpe NR was good bet. A great site for woodland birds, with the bonus of a decent reedbed too. There were two male and two female Bullfinch, and plenty of the common finches and tits, on the first feeders in the woodland, usually a good spot for Marsh Tits.  In the wood we eventually picked up a couple of Marsh Tit calls among all the Nuthatch noise, getting good views. Some Siskin were feeding with Goldfinches high in the birches, and a Redwing flock flew through.

 Bullfinch, Sculthorpe, Norfolk - Sunday 19th January 2014

The reedbed hide is great for Brambling in winter, with 20+ coming to the bird table while we were there. The obligatory Water Rail too. No Coot though. Still had seen one all year…

 Brambling, Sculthorpe, Norfolk - Sunday 19th January 2014

 Water Rail, Sculthorpe, Norfolk - Sunday 19th January 2014

Chris and I went our separate ways, and I decided to head for home, but not before calling in at Abbey Farm at Flitcham, hoping for a Little Owl. The only owl I got was another Barn Owl, way off behind the big Greylag flock. The flock was noisy and restless, with small groups flying in and out. A group of five flew up and I picked out a noticeably smaller Pink-footed Goose going up with them. I love watching geese.  I noticed in the sightings book a Coot had been seen earlier that day - year-list mega! In the hour I'd been there I'd seen eleven Moorhen on the tiny pool in front of the hide, and no Coot despite actively searching for one. I stayed on, watching Red-legged Partridge amble past as the sun went down. And then, finally, a Coot surfaced right in front of me, as if by magic. Ah ha! Brilliant. Better than that American Coot, that was.

 The rural idyl that is Abbey Farm, Flitcham - Sunday 19th January 2014

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A new birding year

So, 2014. A new birding year. Plenty of resolutions to act on (more patch-birding, religiously using BirdTrack, submitting all my local records to BOG, doing the Patchwork Challenge at Rodley NR, losing weight, etc), but the main one is: being happy. And the things that make me happiest are: spending quality time with the kids, and birding.

The first one is all well and good, but when a rarity turns up, thoughts turn to how best to see it, even if it means a trip away from the kids and spending birding time in a car. Sad, I know.

The rarity in question this time was an American Coot. It was (still is, at the time of writing) on Loch Flemington, between Inverness and Nairn, Scotland. I'd seen these before in California, late 2011. Let's be honest, these are not birds that set the pulse racing. But an addition to my British life list so early in the year, and a species which seems to prefer Ireland on the rare occasions it does get over here, was just too good to miss.

After some horse-trading at home, and plans with car-sharing birders being drawn, ripped up, and redrawn, I set off north at tea-time on Friday 10th January. Secret Twitcher Joel generously drove us there and back (I think he doesn't trust my driving), and booked us into a hostel in Inverness for the night. Luxury twitching.

We were at the loch by 08:45, and on the bird very soon after. The light was poor (dawn is later up north in winter than down south), and the bird could go missing in the gloom and reeds. But, for the most part it performed nicely on the water, occasionally doing its chicken-like walk across the cut reed bed.

The key ID point for distinguishing a Eurasian Coot from and American one, at least at a distance, is the presence of white undertail coverts on the latter, which it often flicks (more like a Moorhen than a Eurasian Coot). In fact, the bill shape maybe be more Moorhen-like too, being narrower and taller.. The bill's colour is, of course, white, but with a grey-black smudgy vertical line near the tip. There's a small red patch on the forehead, and deep red eyes.

My photos are a bit shabby - I really should use a tripod in poor light.

American Coot, Loch Flemington, Highland, Scotland - Saturday 11th January 2014

The loch was other wise quiet, bird-wise, with just Moorhen, Mute Swan, Cormorant and Goldeneye in view. Another birder picked up a family of three Otters frolicking on the far bank, behind the Goldeneye. Lovely stuff. And a small skien of Pink-footed Goose flew over our heads low south.

We headed off for breakfast and joined up with a crew from Leicester (including Colin and John who I'd met on North Uist last year, plus the ubiquitous Chris Bromley). We headed to the nearby Alturlie Point to find a reported Lesser Scaup female. Just about every Greater Scaup in the flock was asleep, head tucked in, as we tried to pick out the Lesser in vain. Plenty of other delights though: at least three Red-throated Diver, three Slav Grebe, five or more Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, another Otter, and a low-flying Red Kite over the car.

We headed to Ardersier for a first-winter Iceland Gull, picking it out as it came over the houses to land in the diary farm, Milton of Connage. We watched a couple of Rock Pipit, Turnstone, Knot, Curlew, etc., on the beach before the weather came in and we moved on.


Iceland Gull, Ardersier, Highland, Scotland - Saturday 11th January 2014

Joel needed to get back early, which gave us just enough time to check through some huge Pink-foot flocks for Snow, White-front and Bean Geese (finding a start Greylag only) before heading south. A nice easy twitch, especially for me-the-passenger. Joel had to contend with my ceaseless withering and a heavy defeat for Leeds United as we drove home.

The view from the A9

I started my birding year over the first weekend in January with a four-day family trip to Robin Hoods Bay, near Whitby in North Yorkshire. To be honest, I didn't do a great deal of birding -  it was mostly rock-pooling with the kids, plus walking, drinking, and sleeping. But I did go out first thing each morning, getting great views of 17 or more Purple Sandpiper on the beach at high tide. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to photograph in the poor light at dawn, especially when they match the colour of the wet rocks they're stood on.

Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone, Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire - Friday, 3rd January 2014

Purple Sandpiper, Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire - Friday, 3rd January 2014

These weekends away have meant I haven't yet visited the patch I registered with Patchwork Challenge. It looks like the first visit I'll make this year (and the only one in January) will be on 26th January. That'll have to be in the afternoon after an Airedale Otters event. So much for "getting out on the the patch a bit more in 2014".

One of my birding resolutions: Tidy up my note-taking - old style left, new style right.

I have managed some birding from work at dinnertime (or lunchtime if you prefer). The river and canal which go through Saltaire have Little Grebe and Goosander in winter, and Grey Wagtail is rarely far away. The park and playing fields are good for Fieldfare and Redwing, and the nearby woods have Nutchatch and Treecreeper. The water treatment plant at Dowley Gap is just reachable on foot and back within an hour, and it was here I got my first Goldcrest and Chiffchaff of the year. A few more trips should bring Dipper, Mandarin Duck, Great Spotted Woodpecker and maybe Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire - Sunday, 5th January 2014