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.