Formally the territory of Western Sahara remains disputed between Morocco and the Polisaro Front who ceased hostilities in 1991. Since 2000 the security situation in the areas administered by Morocco have gradually improved which coupled with an extensive programme of mine clearance have allowed the development of tourism, especially kite surfing, in the Dakhla Bay area. As a result an increasing number of birders have made the long drive south from Agadir or flown into Dakhla to explore the Dakhla Peninsular and the road to Assouerd ca 250km to the South-East to see a number of species that are hard to see elsewhere in the Western Palearctic region along with some top reptiles and desert mammals. Graham Clarke and I were keen to join the fun and organised a five day trip over the Easter weekend.
After a rainy drive from Norwich to Gatwick on 27th March we flew to Dakhla , via Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc arriving around midnight where we met by Martina Milanese from Dakhla Rovers who were going to be taking us into the desert for three days. After picking up the car we were renting for the two days prior to our organised trip, we changed some money, found our hotels and went straight to bed.
The following morning dawned hazy with limited visibility across Dakhla Bay as we fueled the car and found a mini-mart that supplied fresh bread and cheese for breakfast and plenty of water before setting off to explore the road that runs South from the city along the rocky Atlantic Coast. As we drove we encountered small groups of gulls on the dry hard clifftops; mainly Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s with a few Yellow-legged mixed in. Some groups were accompanied by a couple of Caspian Terns but, in what was to become a theme, no sign of the hoped for Royal Terns!
Also along these flat stony clifftops were Kentish Plovers, plenty of migrant Northern Wheatears and a pair of very obliging Greater Hoopoe Larks.
When we reached the fishing village of Lassarga the road ran out in a scrap yard which we entered with the blessing of local gendarme, who five minutes later was pushing us out of the sand. We never did find the access point to the tidal pool that we had come to check and later learnt that this may have been for the best as the locals were no longer keen on visitors birdwatching there. Having learnt our lesson about soft sand we decided to head North and found a small inlet called Bouthala that looked interesting on Google maps.
As we parked we were greeted by a very friendly Thekla Lark whilst a couple of Common Pratincoles hawked insects overhead all of which seemed very promising.
The inlet had a good cross section of the common waders of Dakhla Bay including Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin, Grey and Ringed Plovers and Whimbrel along with Grey Heron, Little Egret and Marsh Harrier whilst the resident pair of Black Whesatears patrooled the cliff edges. The few bushes surrounding the inlet held a small number of migrant passerines including Bluethroat, Tree Pipit, Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Western Subalpine Warbler and Willow Warbler – all species that we encounter again over the next few days.
We carried on North and found a couple of places where the road came close to big sand flats one of which held a party of terns; all Sandwich mixed in with some Black-headed Gulls and some lovely pink flushed Slender-billed Gulls. We lunched at a bayside restaurant L’aquilla about 25 km North of Dakhla where we continued to be entertained by migrants; Willow and Subalpine Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, Tree Pipit and Nightingale that occupied every patch of vegetation. After lunch we decided to try working a farm called Taourta 2 on the Atlantic side of the peninsular, but not before I had taken a good look at the local “White breasted” Cormorants which I take to be Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) of the race marocus rather than White-breasted Cormorants (Phalacrocorax lucidus).
We parked by a small cafe and asked a couple of the local lads if it was OK to walk around the farm which they were happy to agree to for the price of a packet of cigarettes (2 euro). There were constantly Bee-eaters over head and the commonest species was Tree Pipit with over 20 individuals in 2-3 allotment sized fields. Other migrants included Nightingale, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler and Blue-headed Wagtail.
By comparison the large public park by the main North/South road a kilometre or so to the East was very quiet with just a Redstart to show for our efforts. The long day and lack of sleep was catching up with us and we called it a day. After a shower and a change of clothes we walked into town to find something to eat and elected for the bayside terrace of the Villa Dakhla which offered very nice menu and a selection of cold beers.
On Friday a female Snowy Owl was found on Scolt Head Island where it could be viewed at considerable distance from the coastal footpath near Burnham Deepdale. Since this represented only the second record of a Snowy Owl in Norfolk in the past 100 years the news caused quite a stir among county listers few of whom had seen the male that wandered North Norfolk for a few days in late March 1991. Try as I might I simply can’t get too worked up about Norfolk listing. Moreover since I was working the next day I had already made plans to leave work early to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri at Norwich’s excellent Cinema City. I enjoyed the movie which lived up to its excellent reviews, and although incredibly funny in places it is a tough watch. Had I made he right decision? I think so! Not only had I seen the 1991 bird in Lincolnshire but also birds on Fetlar, Shetland in the mid eighties. And judging by the pixilated white blobs appearing on social media this bird could only be seen at great distance before it flew off West at dusk.
By Saturday morning, and in keeping with its direction of travel, the owl had relocated to Thornham Point where it could be viewed from Titchwell RSPB reserve. Possibly a second bite of the cherry? A distinct maybe as I was committed all morning. First of all to my daughter Kat who along with her colleagues on the City College Foundation Year was exhibiting her art in Norwich and secondly to helping with an applicant visit day at work.
However by early afternoon I was free and a quick phone call to Kat confirmed her interest in seeing the owl. After collecting Kat from town and a quick stop at home to pick up our wellies and to jump online to order some flowers that might reach my mother in Maidenhead by the following day.
Parking at Titchwell was straight forward and we immediately set off for the beach and soon encountered many very happy friends making the return trip. On reaching the beach we discovered that the tide was out and as we headed west towards the bird we found the tide line littered with the debris of the previous week’s storms including many dead starfish. As we approached the crowd of admirers at the edge of the dunes we found that the owl was close to the shoreline ca 400m distant. Given the reports of some less than ideal behaviour by 2-3 rogue photographers earlier in the day and with the bird’s welfare paramount, everybody was keeping a very respectful distance. Nevertheless views through the telescope of this iconic arctic predator were very good indeed and having missed one on Scilly by just one day a few years back Kat, who is a bit of an owl fan, was delighted to to catch up with one so close to home. Equally delighted was my mother who phoned me while we were watching the owl to say how pleased she was with her flowers – result x2!
More than content we headed back to the car park and drove home arriving in time for me to set the moth trap before making Ingrid dinner.
The following morning there were only a couple of Chestnuts in the trap with a Hebrew Character (NFY – new for the year) resting on a nearby wall. Interestingly there was also a single brightly coloured tortrix moth, that with the help of the Norwich moth-ers WhatsApp group, I identified as Aclaris cristana which turns out to be quite scarce in TG20 with just 15 previous records and a new species for the garden and for me.
Whilst I was sorting this out news emerged that the owl had moved again this time to an area of rough grassland behind one of the hides on Snettisham RSPB reserve and, according to the news services was “showing well“. Since Kat and Ingrid had gone out for Mother’s Day brunch and a movie temptation was too much. After a brief exchange of messages Graham picked me up half an hour later and we set off for Snettisham. When we arrived in the car park early in the afternoon we still had a 30 minute walk to the bird but to our delight she was still there, hunkered down in a grassy hollow a mere 80 m distant and appeared to be unfazed by the crowd of admirers that had assembled behind the fence on the adjacent boardwalk. After about twenty minutes she coughed up some pellets of undigested prey and shortly after flew to a slightly more distant fence post affording us the most wonderful views and providing good photographic opportunities.
We could have stayed all afternoon, but time was moving on and Graham needed to be back in Norwich. Again I was back in before it got dark and with the promise of another mildish night set the moth trap again. Late evening I was rewarded with my third Pale Brindled Beauty of the winter a very fresh individual and almost three months after the first on 21st December suggesting an extended flight period.
Pale Brindled Beauty – click on an image to view the gallery.
The following morning there were again just two moths in the trap; Chestnut and Common Quaker (NFY) but on the wall was a Dotted Border which was a welcome, if not unexpected addition to the garden list and a fine end to a weekend that just got better and better.
When we got up the forecast rain was already in the air. After grabbing a quick breakfast in a Tindaya bar we headed out onto the plains to make the most of the early morning light. A Berthelot’s Pipit was feeding alongside the first rough track we explored, but we saw nothing else and returned to the tarmac when the track petered out.
A Great Grey Shrike on a roadside post was typically nervous so we moved on until after a further 500 m we literally tripped over a party of 4 Houbaras; two of which walked across the road in front of us. Taking Robin Chittenden’ s advice we parked the car, used it as a hide and simply allowed one individual to walk towards us until it was quietly feeding just 50m away.
Houbara Bustard of the
After 30 minutes spent feeding our memory cards we reluctantly moved on picked up some provisions and returned to the Barranco de Rio Cabreas for another go at the Dwarf Bittern. Perched up on the side of the gorge we waited for just 40 mins in deteriorating conditions when two recently arrived birders further down the ravine gestured that they could see our quarry. After further gesturing and some frantic triangulation we located the bird and managed a couple of record shots before the heavens opened and we had to retreat to the car.
In an attempt to outrun the rain we decided to head South to the wood at Costa Calma and search for wintering passerines, The car heater was turned up to maximum in an attempt to dry outbut when we arrived in Costa Calma about an hour later we were still a touch damp. The “wood” is in fact two strips of parkland each about 1 km long and neither more than 100 m wide that run parallel to the beachside hotels. As we walked through the western strip we found a motley collection of refugees from the European winter including 15 Song Thrushes, 2 Siskin, a Redwing and a Brambling (a Canarian rarity) before encountering one of our target species; a group of 3 Little Buntings feeding on some dry under story.
Walking to end of the strip we found a few more Song Thrushes and Chiffchaffs before turning back and bumping into a visiting birder from Gran Canaria who had seen a Yellow-browed Warbler and gave us directions to the Olive-backed Pipits which had relocated to the other strip.
Following his directions we soon located a party of three OBPs which gave nice views despite the footfall through that section of the park. By now the sun was out and with our mission accomplished we set off back off to the North West of the island.
The Embalse de los Molinos is probably the largest stretch of fresh water on Fuerteventura and as such is something of a magnet for visiting birders. As we got out of the car there were swifts, this time Pallid, overhead and a departing birder mentioned a Marbled Teal. We eventually caught up with this duck at the far end of the reservoir along with ca 20 Common Teal, a couple of Mallard and a female Tufted Duck, but it was quitter hard work without in the strong wind and without a telescope. Amongst the other common water birds, Coot, Little Egret and Spoonbill, were a few Greenshank, a couple of Common Sandpipers and a Black-headed Gull. After an hour or so the sun was going down behind the mountains, it was noticeably cooler and time to go. On the way home we chanced upon the very pleasant La Cancela Restaurante in the small town of Tefia where we enjoyed some local specialities. Feeling better for something to eat will stocked up on supplies for the next day at a supermarket between La Oliva and Villaverde before heading back to the apartment for the night.
Family commitments had made it impossible for me to join the steady stream of Western Palearctic listers who, since December, had made the trip to Fuetereventura to twitch a Dwarf Bittern (a tiny African heron that is incredibly rare in our region) and enjoy some Macronesian endemic and scarce wintering species in the sun. The first weekend in March was my best chance and despite the efforts of the “Beast from the East” and Storm Emma to derail the plan I had a straightforward, if bitterly cold, journey down to Barton Mills in the early hours of 2nd March to rendezvous with Sue Bryan and then on to Stansted. Our Ryanair flight, reassuringly dripping with antifreeze, departed more or less on time and by midday we were in the warm Canarian sun collecting a hire car, which was a definite upgrade on the requested Ford Fiesta.
After a brief stop for fuel and water we headed North-West to the segment of the Baranco de Rio Cabrea that had hosted the Dwarf Bittern for almost three months. The car was parked by the entrance to a land fill site that was swarming with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with a supporting cast of Common Ravens Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and Grey Herons.
We tramped 300m across a stony plain flushing a pair of Lesser Short-toed Larks as we went before locating the breeze block cairn that marked the path down to the bottom of the barranco. As we descended into the gorge there were Ruddy Shelducks in the stream below and Trumpeter Finches calling everywhere..
The vegetated floor of barranco was very birdy; Hoopoe, Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, and a pair of indigenous Fuerteventura Chats that were actively collecting food for their brood.
After a couple of hours I picked up a tiny heron flying towards us that had been flushed by two birders working the upper part of the Barranco. The Dwarf Bittern carried on past us and dived into a thick clump of tamarisks. We relocated to the opposite side of the gorge. As we waited we noted African Blue Tit, Spectacled Warbler and a noticeably green and yellow Phylloscopus warbler with contrasting white underparts and yellow supercilium that appeared a good candidate for Iberian Chiffchaff. This species is not on the Canary Islands list and unfortunately it was silent and I got no images. Even more unfortunately the Dwarf Bittern didn’t emerge until the couple who had originally disturbed it approached our vantage point and inadvertently flushed it again this time out of view from us and none of other three observers were able to see where it landed. By now it was now late afternoon and after one more brief search overseen by a party of Plain Swifts we decided to cut our losses and head over to the Tindaya Plains to search for Houbaras.
Shortly after leaving the village of Tindaya we located a single very distant male Houbara displaying in the rapidly dimming light. As we continued further down the track four Black-bellied Sandgrouse crossed in front of us offering close views.
Content we pressed on a further a 200 m or so when Sue picked a Cream Coloured Courser in the gloaming which turned out to be one of three birds. Repositioning the car allowed for a short high ISO photography session with the closest individual before the light packed up it was time to go and find our digs in nearby La Oliva.
After checking into our accommodation we walked into time to find something to eat only to find the local pizzeria was shut. A local bar doubled as a greasy spoon and although the food was indifferent there was cold beer to toast an excellent first afternoon! Feeling better for something to eat and drink we returned to the apartment where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow impervious to the sound of Stone Curlews in the surrounding fields.
After a pretty brutal few weeks and with Valentine’s Day on the horizon Ingrid and I had planned a weekend getaway. These days our destinations need to be dog friendly to meet the needs of Dexter, our three year old yorkie-poo. The Crown at Westleton, as well as being handy for the birding hotspots of the Suffolk Coast lived up to its reputation as one of the UK’s 25 most dog friendly pubs; doggie treats in the rooms, hot dog showers for mucky pups and a warm welcome in the bar for your four-legged friend as you enjoy an excellent evening meal. Plus they have a great wine list – what’s not to like!
Fortunately Ingrid has known me a very long time didn’t insist on my company for the entire weekend and allowed me an early breakfast and a couple of hours on Saturday morning to revisit Hazelwood Common and attempt better views/images of the Coues’s Arctic Redpoll than Graham and I had managed on New Year’s Eve.
Arriving just after 9 am there were a handful of birders present plus a couple of photographers in full cammo and with no bins. Over the course of the next hour the small skittish flock of redpolls were either airborne, out of view in the recently ploughed field or hiding in a nearby thicket. Eventually most folk managed to piece together satisfactory views through their scopes or in flight a left content, except for the two rather dour photographers who were content to wait quietly at the edge of the field.
Eventually the flock returned to the field with the Coues’s feeding in a furrow on the crest of a ridge ca 50 m away; too far for photography, but close enough to show to a recently arrived couple who were more than happy and quickly moved on. Just as I was thinking of leaving – the birds flew directly over my head into some nearby small trees, but frustratingly against the light! The Coues’s then flew 30m up the lane and landed in a hedge at eye level <10m behind the two photographers who were still looking into the field. Yelling directions I picked up my tripod quickly moved next to them only to see the bird drop down to avoid a passer by – but before I could let out a frustrated FFS – it popped back up and stayed in view for a couple of minutes whilst all three of us reeled of multiple exposures – job done and time to head back to Westleton!
Now you would have thought that a smile and a nod of thanks might have come my way from the two taciturn togs – not a bit of it. However given the stick that so many long lens photographers get from birders perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But fair play to these guys they showed exemplary patience, no lapses in fieldcraft, didn’t bother anybody else and gave no reason to believe the photographers and birders can’t enjoy birds together.
I had arranged a day off on Monday and used it to drive Ingrid, my wife, to a work appointment in Great Yarmouth. After leaving her for a couple of hours I went to look for the Glossy Ibis that has been frequenting the flooded grass in Bure Park. It turned out to be quite confiding and with a bit of patience posed nicely for the camera when the winter sun finally broke through.
Meanwhile at home in Eaton the extended run of cold nights have not been conducive to moth trapping. However, 28th Jan was an exception and I managed to attract a single male Pale Brindled Beauty (females are wingless) which I then needed to keep in the fridge for a couple days until a day with good enough light for photography.
There are a number of late winter/early spring moths currently being caught in small numbers by Norfolk recorders that I have yet to see – hopefully there will be a few warmer nights before their flight season is over.
I had to visit my Mother and Sister in Maidenhead on Saturday 27th Jan which gave me the chance to pay a brief visit Staines Reservoir in Surrey to see an American Horned Lark which was found in late November, disappeared after a few days, but re-emerged in the early part of the previous week. Staines lies pretty much at one end of Heathrow’s runways and is essentially an enormous water-filled concrete bowl bisected by a raised causeway whose weedy slopes have provided food and shelter for this vagrant lark. I arrived mid-morning, parked the car by the ramp to the causeway, settled my doggie travelling companion in the back seat and set off. The bird was feeding on the south slope below the furthest viewing bay separated from its observers by a 1.5m barred metal fence that made photography challenging, but not impossible and with patience it was possible to get some decent images.
Horned Lark, (aka Shore Lark) is a species that is widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere with some forty different races described on the basis of variations in plumage and biometrics. It has been proposed that the Old World forms should be treated as five different species and the North American forms, of which there are >20, as a sixth There is useful summary and discussion of this work on the Birding Frontiers site. The main question for anybody going to see the Staines bird are whether on the basis of plumage it can be assigned to one of the of the North American forms rather than the familiar yellow faced form Eremophila alpestris flava which winters in small numbers around the UK coast and currently the only one on the British List. A secondary issue, is whether in he fullness of time the North American forms might be split as a separate species and allow our British and WP lists to advance by one!
All Horned larks share the same basic facial pattern of a black mask and choker with supercillium, forehead, cheeks and chin being yellow and/or white depending on race. Clues from the plumage to the Staines bird having a Nearctic origin come from the heavily streaked mantle, pinky-rufous flanks that contrast with the white belly, the heavy striking on the lower breast and the strong pinkish component to the shawl (rear nape, upper mantle – this coloration should extend onto the lesser and median coverts, but this was hard to see on as the bird stayed hunched as it shuffled around in the strong breeze and never stood upright and alert. These pinkish tones are even more pronounced in some other North American races for instance Eremophila alpestris leucolaema; the non migratory race of the interior West that I know from my time in Colorado
Candidate Horned Larks in the Western Palearctic have previously been reported in Iceland (Birding World (1999) 12: 375-376.), in Northern Ireland (Birding World (1999 ) 12: 152-154) and on Scilly in Oct 2001 (Birding World (2002) 15: 111-119 and Surfbirds). All of these were tentatively attributed to the large, long-winged, migratory NE race E. a.alpestris and images of the Iceland and Ulster birds in the BW articles suggest that the yellow parts of the head to be deeper in tone that flava as indicated by Nils van Duivendijk in his Advanced Bird ID Guide. The images of the Scilly bird are less compelling in that regard; that bird having a white rear supercilium and pale ear coverts. Needless to say that whilst writing this I am regretting not making the effort to go over to St Agnes and see it for myself when I had the opportunity during a Scilly long weekend in October 2001! Nevertheless, for what it is worth, the yellow in the face of the St Agnes bird the is more intense and extensive than on the Staines individual.
So where does this leave us? In his comprehensive Birding World and Surfbirds articles Brian Small discusses another large and highly migratory race known as Hoyt’s Lark (E. a.hoyti) that breeds in the high arctic to the West of E. a.alpestris. Brian’s description and painting suggests that hoyti is quite similar to alpestris with the major difference being he intensity of streaking on the lower breast. It was therefore with some considerable interest that I came across this short article by John Ruddy on his Eastern Ontario Birding website with some images of a candidate Hoyt’s that he had seen among wintering alpestris and some comparative images of museum skins of the three forms that occur in Eastern Ontario; alpestris, hoyti and praticola plus an additional reference to an article written by Ron Pittaway in Ontario Birds from 1994.
These Canadian articles suggest that hoyti is a rather distinctive pale race with a white supercillium and just a daffodil blush on the throat – very much in keeping the facial pattern of the Staines bird. But neither article mentions the extensive lower breast streaking that the Staines individual clearly exhibits.
This left me wondering to what extent appearance is is related to age and/or sex. The ID Guide to North American Passerines by Pyle an others suggest that it is a female (white admixed with black in the mask, no black forehead) but it would have completed its annual moult by Sept if a first calendar year bird and earlier if an adult. It is hard to see that heavy streaking just disappearing by feather wear. So whilst there is no doubt of a North American origin for the Staines Horned Lark assigning it to race, even with biometrics, may not be possible. I suspect that obtaining a DNA sample may not help given that one of the commentators on Ruddy’s article reports seeing many intergrades between alpestris and hoyti in the Hudson Bay area of Central Canada. Hopefully with ever more observers going to see this smart little bird there will be further discussion and perhaps more information will come to light.
As a footnote this was only my second ever visit to Staines Reservoir. The first 35 years ago was to see my first Baird’s Sandpiper that had overwintered on the muddy edges to one of the drained basins. Like Horned Lark Baird’s Sandpiper is a species that I would got to know well when I lived in Colorado where it is by far and away the commonest Calidrid during autumn migration.
After a difficult couple of weeks it was nice to have a morning out with Graham. Given our time constraints and Graham’s love of chats there was only ever going to be one destination; Sheringham where a lovely confiding male Black Redstart has been frequenting the seafront RNLI carpark. We arrived at the car park, a bit of waste ground next to the a block of flat prophetically named Upcher Court where the gaggle of birders/toggers suggested the was not that far away In order to photograph it at eye level against a clean background we cut the height of the tripods and lay on the floor – for as long as we could stay in contact with the bitterly cold ground before having to get up and walk around.
The approach worked well as the bird dropped to a favoured area of grass no doubt encouraged by the meal worms scattered by a benevolent local photographer.
Ironically whilst we were there a bit of furore broke out on Twitter in response to news that the long staying Desert Wheatear near Whitby had been predated with some posters quick to blame supplementary feeding by photographers for its untimely demise. So should we resort to supplementary feeding in order to get good images? Many must think it is OK as since I first encountered this practice at another Desert Wheatear , at Horsey in November 2008, and it is something that has become increasingly commonplace in the UK.
I must admit to not being entirely convinced. Given enough time, space and cautious movements by their observers small chats quickly get used to humans and are also quite adept at finding their own food sources. For example the long-staying Eastern Black Redstart in Cleveland last winter found plenty of insects in its favourite patch of wrack strewn boulders and was very tolerant of a steady stream of admirers during its four month stay. And another Desert Wheatear, this time at Lowestoft in November 2014 would with patience walk up to you!
On the other hand supplementary feeding raises awareness of birds and their conservation as well as supporting vulnerable populations during hard weather. Where such activities exist photographers are more than happy to take advantage. For instance how many world birders would have Antpittas on their lists and good photos if it was not for the ground breaking efforts of Angel Paz in Ecuador? And we all love feeding stations whether it is for Willow Tits in Northern England, Hummingbirds in the Neotropics or Rosy Finches in Colorado we are all more than happy to turn up with our cameras and click away. Speaking of Rosy Finches – one appeared at a feeder in front of a hide on the Nosappu Penninsular on Hokkaido last winter even before my Japanese companions had emptied a tub if sunflower seeds on the feeding station!
Like many aspects of birding it comes down to common sense and above everything else the welfare of the bird. If it is possible to supplement a bird’s normal food supply in a way that does not make it dependent and susceptible to predation fair enough. However that is no reason to suspend the principles of good field craft and behave in a way that prevents the bird from attending the food supply and deprives others the opportunity to observe/photograph/enjoy it in their own way.
Meanwhile back in Sheringham after an hour or so of enjoying the Black Redstart Graham and I were frozen to the bone and went in search of a cafe. Failing miserably in Sheringham we drove along the coast to Cromer and eventually found refuge and a warm welcome in the excellent Crab Pot Cafe where we enjoyed some supplementary feeding of the Full English variety.
For birdwatchers across the world New Year’s Day is a day of anticipation and renewal, the day when year lists are reset to zero, plans laid for the coming twelve months and attempts are made to see as many species in a day in a defined area. Except in 1988 when on NYD most of the UK birding community descended on the Dorset/Hampshire border with the sole intention of adding Little Bustard to their British List and this was one New Year party that my good friend, the late and much missed, Keith Regan and I did not want to miss out on.
The snag was that New Year’s Eve is a big deal in the North East of England so some delicate negotiations were required in order to excuse ourselves from from the planned first footing and other alcohol fuelled celebrations and drive through the night to rendezvous with Mike Watson and Stuart Warren in Letchworth before going on to Dorset. Stuart who had recently returned from his African honeymoon was the ideal person to drive the second leg as not only did he clock up significant miles in his day job, but he had also piloted Mike and myself around Turkey two years previously. Ominously when we piled into Stuart’s car to head South-west it was already raining!
When we arrived round dawn we knew we were in the right place as it was hard to navigate the narrow lanes because of number of cars that had not so much been parked as carefully abandoned on verges; no polite messages from Birdguides asking you to park nicely in those days! And as we joined the throng at the edge of the field in which the bustard had been seen at dusk on NYE it was still raining, heavily and persistently. As is the custom on these occasions, there was much anxious and good natured chat as we got progressively wetter waiting to the bird to appear. Stuart was on particularly good form telling anyone who was interested about the various species of bustard he had recently seen in Africa and in doing so made the schoolboy error of leaving his binoculars uncovered. Consequently when it was agreed that a couple of locals would put us out of our misery and entered the field to coax the bird into view his eye-cups were full of water and as the bird was flushed he didn’t see it. It is never comfortable driving back from a twitch when one person in the car does not see the bird, but when it is your driver…. Needless to say we drove back to Letchworth in near silence uncomfortably damp in a car that was starting to reek of wet Barbour jackets in a way that was going to provide Stu with a painful reminder for days to come.
In recent years my NYDs have been more sedate and spent birding close to home. In 2007 my daughter Kat, then aged 9, and I decided to see how many species we could see within 3km of our house in West Norwich. We managed just 40 but until last year (2017) when Kat and I were in Japan I had repeated the count every year with a best total of 51 in 2011 and a cumulative total of 75. So when, after the recent heavy rains, NYD 2018 dawned with clear skies I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the circle. Species are listed in order of addition (#1) with those seen on two or fewer of the previous ten counts in blue text.
Adding the first species is always easy. I drive to the end of our cul-de-sac, turn right down the hill and park at the estate entrance where there is a colony of House Sparrows (#1). Next, in time honoured fashion, I cruised slowly along Bluebell Road and the fringes of Eaton Park clocking up the expected suburban species; Carrion Crow (#2), Wood Pigeon (#3), Blackbird (#4), Collared Dove (#5), Magpie (#6), Starling (#7) and Robin (#8). A quick stop by Eaton Park boating lake added Black-headed (#9) and Common Gull (#10) along with Chaffinch (#11) and Goldfinch (#12). The list was further incremented by Feral Pigeon (#13) on the short drive to West Earlham Marsh.
Arriving in Bevan Close I found the marsh full to the brim and pretty much birdless apart from a few Mallard (#14) on the water and a couple of Wrens (#15) chasing each other in the rank margins. Moreover the path leading from St Mary’s Church, Earlham, to the bund next to the River Yare was impassible. So after adding Song Thrush (#16), Dunnock (#17) and Blue Tit (#18) in the thicket by the kissing gate I drove the the Northern entrance and re-parked.
Despite the extensive flooding the bund was still accessible here and as soon on reaching the river I added Moorhen (#19) whilst Pied Wagtails (#20) and Meadow Pipits (#21) flew overhead. The mass of open water meant that the flock of dabbling duck had dissipated, but it did not take long to find a few Eurasian Teal (#22) and the expected Jackdaws (#23) feeding on the margins as a Great Cormorant (#24) flew high over the estate. Herring Gull (#25) and Grey Heron (#26) were soon added. Green Woodpecker (#27) was another flyover whilst a Grey Wagtail (#28) briefly joined its Pied cousins on the soaking grass. Further examination of the floodplain did not uncover the expected Snipe, but it did give me Little Grebe (#29 ), Little Egret (#30), not seen before 2013 but now annual, and Lesser-black Backed Gull (#31). Best of all it was only 10.30hrs and I had not seen a slew of common woodland species. Surely the record of 51 was there for the taking!
Or maybe not! My next stop by the Spire Hospital only added Great Tit (#32). Then in a moment of inspiration (or hunger) I decided on a short diversion to the new McDonalds on the Thickthorn roundabout. This required me to drive a route that always has feeding Rooks (#35) and some rough ground that usually has a hunting Kestrel (#36) and as I pulled into the car park by Cringleford Wood with my coffee and breakfast wrap a Common Buzzard (#37) soared over the UEA campus. Whilst the wood itself did not deliver the expected Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit (#38) , Coal Tit (#39) and GS Woodpecker (#40) were all seen in quick succession and I did not hang around. Continuing across to the West end of UEA Broad I found a pair of GC Grebes (#41) with beaks full of weed dancing like a pair of “Strictly” finalists with a single Coot (#42), the first count record since 2011, for an audience. No Mistle Thrushs at the back of the Sainsbury Centre, but a Mute Swan (# 43) on the river by the playing fields and a Jay (#44) kept the total ticking over Walking back to the car gave via Lusty Hills gave me a bonus Bullfinch (#45) and I was able to persuade a solitary Goldcrest (#46) out of the New Plantation before deciding on my next move.
Which was to drive to Intwood at the southern limit of the circle where there is a patchwork of small brooks and wet fields that have always looked good for a wintering Green Sandpiper or Jack Snipe. Back on Planet Earth Egyptian Goose (#47 ) and Mistle Thrush (#48 ) were a good return, but still no gamebirds. In past years the arable fields viewed from the back road that leads from the B1113 to the Hartford Park and Ride have been a reliable spot for Red-legged Partridge. Not today but they did deliver a few Stock Dove (#49) mixed in with a sizeable flock of Fieldfare (#50 ) and a Pheasant (#51 ) that was prepared to risk the NYD shoots. Before pausing for lunch I had one last attempt for Red-leg at the back of Keswick Mill that ended in failure, but even that was OK when I broke my record with a Reed Bunting (#52) that popped up in a low hedge.
It was now 13.30hrs and even allowing for tea and toast there was two hours in which to target gaps and add to the total First stop was the boardwalk that runs along the Yare at the east end of UEA Broad which was under water where there were none of the hoped for Carduelis finches, but two Kingfishers (#53) flashed their sapphire butts as they played tag in the lakeside vegetation. Next stop was Earlham Park where a Nuthatch (#54) was calling atop a big tree. After a quick and unproductive walk around the park I returned to West Earlham Marsh to see what might turn up at dusk. After 20 minutes of seeing nothing new and getting ever colder in fading light a Sparrowhawk (#55) appearedout of nowhere and raced low over the marsh. Content I started back to the car and was almost there when a Water Rail (#56) jumped out of a patch of riverside scrub and back. As I thawed out and headed for home I reflected on an excellent day where everything had gone to plan and once again my mind wandered back to NYD 1988.
After saying our rather awkward farewells to Stuart, Mike, Keith and I headed over to Salthouse in North Norfolk to stay in the bunkhouse that Steve and Liz Harris (now of BIRDscapes Gallery in Glandford) ran at the time with a view to seeing two rare geese; Red-breasted Goose and Black Brant. These were scored the following day with Keith memorably taking his bacon and egg to a telescope set up by an upstairs window so that he could tick RBG whilst eating a full English. Those two days 30 years ago, in which everything went to plan (well at least for three of us) were the start of an annus mirabilis. This included a memorable early spring trip to Israel, a string of outstanding British and Irish rares including Caspian Plover and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that ended with a Boxing Day American Robin in Scotland (after yet more negotiation). Along the way I submitted my PhD thesis and found a new job in Colorado. After such a a positive start to 2018 I wonder what the rest of the birding year will bring?
It may seem perverse to launch a new blog at the start of 2018 with a post about New Year’s Eve, but Graham Clarke and I had such an enjoyable day out around Aldeburgh it seemed shame not to share. In the past December in Aldeburgh has been kind to me and afforded me opportunities to see an Ivory Gull in 1999 (see the images on my good friend Simon Stirrup’s website) and a very confiding Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll in 2012.
For those not familiar with Aldeburgh it is an attractive town on the Suffolk coast about 20 miles ENE of Ipswich perhaps best known as having been the residence of the composer Benjamin Britten, but also recognised for its fresh fish shacks on the beach, an independent cinema and a well preserved 400 year old Moot Hall (top image) that is still used by the local council. With the RSPB’s North Warren reserve to the North and the Alde Estuary and Orford Ness to the South it is an outstanding winter birdwatching destination.
Our quarry this NYE was the Coue’s Arctic Redpoll that had been frequenting Hazelwood Common, just west of the town for the past month. Arctic Redpolls (Hoary Redpolls if you are North American) come in two forms. One, the aforementioned Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll breeds in Greenland and adjacent regions of Arctic Canada is super-rare, in UK terms, away from the Northern Isles; hence all the excitement when John Geeson and I twitched the Aldeburgh bird one Sunday morning in December 2012. The second Coue’s Arctic Redpoll is a circumpolar tundra breeder that is a rare but regular autumn/winter visitor occasionally in some numbers (e.g 1995/96). Graham who had not seen an Arctic Redpoll of any description was naturally keen and picked me up just after 8 am hoping that the forecast was correct and the rain would abate by the time we arrived at our destination.
We found the site without difficulty, a raised set-aside field off the A1094 on the opposite side of a public footpath to its favoured thicket. The redpoll flock regularly moved between the two occasionally alighting on exposed branches, although never for long in the stiff breeze. Nevertheless over the course of a couple of hours we obtained several satisfactory views before taking a break to go and look for the Snow Buntings that had been seen around Slaughden, south of the town.
After parking the car we walked south along he paved bank towards the Martello Tower that serves as the gateway to Orford Ness and were soon among plenty of birds; Turnstones hunkering down out of the wind on the shingle beach and flocks of Dark Bellied Brent Geese and Knot feeding on the saltmarsh fringes to the Alde estuary. Graham found a couple of confiding Purple Sandpipers dozing on some big rocks between two breakwaters oblivious to us or the spume of the incoming tide. As we waited for them to lift their heads for the camera a handful of Snow Buntings flew over or heads.
Images of the sandpipers secured we continued south and found a party of three Snow Buntings feeding in the lee of a digger parked at the foot of the MartelloTower. When disturbed they flew to a nearby shingle ridge but were keen to return to their favoured grassy patch. With careful positioning we could use Graham’s car as a hide and take our time to photograph the birds as we ate our lunch. By now the wind had dropped and it was a lot brighter so it was something of a no-brainer to return to the Arctic Redpoll to see if it was was any more obliging.
With the improved weather there was more footfall along the path and the birds were generally more skittish. The Coue’s appeared briefly but distantly; enough to allow a quick record shot and then it was time to head home to make sure we hit the supermarkets before 4pm. It was, by a considerable margin, the best day out that we had enjoyed out together since our short trip to Majorca at the beginning of May and an absolute pleasure to able to sit quietly with our cameras in close proximity to some very trusting and photogenic birds.