Tuesday 3 January 2012

Seeing lots of birds in Norfolk

It has more or less become traditional to bird the patch on January the first, and then have a big day out somewhere on January 2nd. Last year we went to Norfolk for the day, the year before that, Essex. Looking at a map of “where good birds are at” made it an easy choice yesterday, especially as one of our number needed the Western Sandpiper that is still hanging around at Cley.

I was out waiting on the pavement at 6am sharp, and the boys (Bradders, Monkey, and Hawky) arrived a short while later. En route, the ever sharp-eyed Hawky bagged Barn Owl and Woodcock to ensure the day-list (and the year list) got off to a flying start. Our first stop Fakenham for the interestingly-pale Great Grey Shrike. None of us were quite ready for the intense cold in North Norfolk, especially after the mildest start to January since 1821 which saw me severely over-dressed for my big day in Wanstead. I severely under-compensated and was thus almost immediately freezing, and the Shrike was not an early-riser. Whilst waiting, a load of year ticks made themselves known, including two coveys of Grey Partridge, a species I had failed to see last year. Eventually the Shrike deigned to wake up and gave excellent and prolonged views until we could stand the cold no longer and retreated to the warmth of the car, which with Paul, Monkey and especially me in it, was extremely cosy.

Definitely a very pale bird, not as washed-out as in Steppe, but you can see why people wondered about Homeyeri. I know nothing about such things, but I understand the wing formula, in particular the configuration of the white panel, is wrong for this sub-species. I thought I heard it mutter “doh!” a couple of times, but I don’t know enough about the vocalisations to know if this is diagnostic. None of this matters one jot of course, it is a Shrike, and can be enjoyed regardless. A local who had seen the bird a few times told us it had a larder in the middle of the hedge, but you couldn’t tell where it was; had we known we could have scoped it for evidence of doughnuts....

So, with two birds under the belt that I hadn’t seen in 2011, we carried on to Cley for the Western Sand, which showed immediately, though much further away than last month, which was a shame as it meant I couldn’t get any colour on it all. It still reminded me of a small Dunlin though, in the same way that Semi-Ps don’t. Next stop Salthouse, the target being coffee from the man with the miniature coffee van who can regularly be found at the beach carpark and makes excellent and extremely reasonably-priced coffee – Starbucks take note – a superb coffee in fantastic surroundings for £1.25. As I waited for the brewing process to complete, and looked longingly at the box of biscuits, a shout came from the beach  - “Glauc!” Hawky, as is seemingly normal, had done it again. Coffee in hand, he had wandered up the shingle bank and the first bird he had clapped eyes on was a first winter Glaucous Gull flying past. We all scrambled up the slope to make sure we got on this “beauty” before it disappeared out of sight, but happily it landed on the sea, caught a seal, and then came and sat on the beach to eat it. Other punters weren’t so lucky – we had phoned the news out straight away, and this being North Norfolk in early January, birders began to arrive thick and fast, but not fast enough. The gull polished off the seal in under five minutes and then continued its journey east, I think we were the only people to see it, which was a shame.
Pleased with this, as well as a bonus Snow Bunting we had kicked up on the shingle whilst trying to get closer to the gull, we turned back west towards Wells. A quick scan of the Brent flock on the pitch and putt course bagged one of the Black Brants as well as a Pale-bellied, and following up news of a Rough-legged Buzzard in the Holkham area, we were not surprised to pick it up from the car. A convenient layby appeared and we all rapidly bailed out (to the extent really fat people can get out of vehicles quickly). It was a partically leucistic bird, with extremely pale upperparts, and for a while I remained unconvinced that it wasn’t a funny Common Buzzard, but luckily the tail pattern was seen. Rough-leg was another species I hadn’t seen in 2011, annoyingly racked-up only a few days after it’s all over. Shows quite how bizarre year-listing is, or more accurately, how bizarre not year-listing is. Had I been year-listing, presumably I would have made sure to be in Norfolk a few days earlier...

The real target of the day, for me at least, was the Coue’s Arctic Redpoll at Titchwell. I had never seen this sub-species, or maybe that’s “variation on the Redpoll scale”. The initial signs were not good, cars parked all the way along the entrance track, and barely any room in the carpark. It was clearly going to be one of those afternoons. The usual comedy of watching a tricky bird with masses of other people at Titchwell ensued, but I got superb scope views of the bird as it fed with both Mealy (or what I’d call a Mealy at any rate), and a bunch of standard Lessers. The bird on Shetland in 2011 had initially been called as a Coue’s, and on first impression, I’d say that that bird looked whiter, but Redpolls are a lesson in the need for close (very close!) observation and attention to detail - as multiple previous failings have taught me - and gradually I built up a picture of the bird at Titchwell which I am pretty happy with. It might not be a tick, and indeed Redpolls could go the other way and lose me a tick or two, but it was a great bird. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen Arctic Redpoll in 2011.....

Buoyed by this success, I decided to leave the masses and walk down to the beach. There was, however, no avoiding the masses – I have never seen the place so busy. The need for year-tickage dominated though, so we stuck it out ‘til the bitter end, ‘til we had scooped up all available new birds, including two Scaup, yet another 2011 miss. What on earth was happening – that was the fifth bird I hadn’t seen in 2011, scooped up with no hassle whatsoever. The sea held two Whooper Swans, clearly also fed up with the number of people, not including us, on the reserve, a single Velvet Scoter, and perhaps a thousand Common Scoter about a mile out to sea all flying round in a huge circle, literally a ring. Any ideas why, as I have never seen anything like it. Maybe they're all feeling a bit fat from just bobbing about on the sea, and so this is their version of the January exercise regime.

We finished up at Flitcham, where I am happy to report that I dipped Little Owl. That really would have taken the biscuit, but the trees were empty. Instead we jammed a ringtail Hen Harrier, before heading back to London on 90 species. I’m not year-listing – I never do – but my records tell me that this is my best start ever. Not to worry though, I have high hopes of fading fast.

1 comment:

  1. splendid yarn as ever young man, and makes me realise England in winter isn't quite the worst possible place to be. Thanks for the message by the way - who knows where the patch will be this time round....?