Managing the Light

My grandmother referred to the days around the winter solstice as “the dark days before Christmas”.  I sometimes think this phrase speaks to her understanding of the powerful impact that limited hours of daylight and grey skies can have on our wellbeing.  Circumstances that combined with the demands of the holiday season make it imperative to make best use of the few sunny days that come along; especially for birder/photographers.  

The first of these was Sunday 15th December and my orginal intention was to head over to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo where an adult male Black-throated Thrush found earlier in the week was holding court.  However mindful of the need to drive to Maidenhead the following weekend, and the fact that I had seen half a dozen Black-throated Thrushes in the UK it seem best to but that one on the back-burner.  Instead I headed South to the RSPB’s Hollesley Marshes reserve in Suffolk where I was able to watch the long-staying Siberian Stonechat happily feeding out of the wind some 200 m away

After an hour or so it was clear that the Stonechat was not coming closer so I made the short journey around the Deben estuary to Felixstowe Ferry where a Black-necked Grebe had taken up residence on a small beach side pool.  

The beachside pool at Felixstowe Ferry

From a photographic perspective this was much more satisfactory.  Lying on the flat rocks with the setting sun behind me the grebe would pop up just 5 metres away.  Unfortuntely for most of my visit it seemed encumbered by some green nylon fishing line that had got wrapped around its lower neck.  Fortunately this did no seem to impair feeding and about half way through my visit the bird appeared to be disentangling itself (upper image).  The lower image shows it to be free of the twine and I know for certain it remained on that pool for a further three days hopefully safe from dog walkers and stone throwers before it made its way back out to sea.

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019
Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019

As it turned out that a combination of work, assorted Christmas preparations and multiple trips to the dentist meant that it was not possible to make the Maidenhead trip until Sunday 22nd.   Fortunately an early start was not needed as Whipsnade does not open to the public until 10.00 hrs and the forecast was that the ealy rain would not clear until 11.00 hrs.  It is always good when a plan comes together and as I was parking just after 11 the first visiting birders were leaving and the day was brightening. To cap it all a very kind lady walked up to me and gave me a voucher for half price entry.  Over the next hour the bird did not disappoint showing well in and around its favoured cotoneaster bush before moving into a nearby animal pen all in very good light that showed off the nucanced charcoal tones that offset it’s bright yellow bill base.

Black-throated Thrush (Turdus atrogularis) ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire, 22nd Dec 2019

More than happy with my views and photo opportunities completed a leisurely journey across the Chilterns to Maidenhead and spent a pleasent afternoon with my Mother and Sister before an early evening return to Norwich.

In many ways seemed an excellent way  to end the birding year. However as so often is the case, there was a late surprise  in the form of another Eastern Yellow Wagtail found frequenting a West Norfolk dung heap during the afternoon of 23rd December. And this individual was not an esoteric study in greyscale with a funny call, but a handsome first winter male of the nominate subspecies Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis aka Alaskan (Yellow) Wagtail or Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail.  For a quick refresher on Yellow Wagtail taxonomy see my recent post;  On the Beach.  As for English names of recent splits please! Just don’t get me started!  

The  more immediate problem was that I was finishing at work,  Christmas Eve was going to be spent shopping and making preparations for Christmas Day and Boxing Day guests and the only sunny day in the forseeable future was Christmas Day.  And although I have long since stopped caring about county lists this appeared to be a very pretty bird and worth the effort.

In the event the family kindly made sure this was not a problem – with presents exchanged by 11.30hrs and Christmas Dinner preparations in Hugh’s capable hands I was given an unexpected bonus present in the for of an exeat. Unsurprisingly there were just a couple of observers present and as I unpacked my gear and the wagtail moved from a large roadside muck heap to a stubble field where it fed distantly for about ten minutes before flying off South-East.  Others decided to await its return but I walked down a farm track to the a second pile of sludge and manure where it had fed the previous day. 

Prime habitat for a vagrant wagtail

Creeping around the back of the site to get the low sun behind me I surprised the EYW which flew calling into a nearby copse before returning to feed on the piles of manure and in the slurry pools which appeared full of insects. For the next 45 minutes myself and one other photographer had this confiding beauty to ourselves whilst skeins of Pink-footed Geese called over head and flocks of Fieldfare bounced along the hedgerows.  What was there not to like?

Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019

I eventually tore myself away so that I could drive home on the near empty roads in the light and was back home by 15.30hrs to enjoy the rest of our family Christmas Day including the fine meal served up by Hugh.

The outstanding spread that awaited me later that evening….

Some final thoughts on the EYW.  If we accept the identification of this bird as an EYW on the basis of it’s flight call then maybe it can be ascribed as a candidate ssp tschutschensis on the basis of the blue-grey crown and nape (appears slate grey in some lights), white supercillium that stops short of the bill base and dark grey lores. As for it’s origins despite the “Alaskan” moniker tschutschensis breeds as close as NE Kazhakstan; nearer than many far-eastern species that reach our shores.  Conceivably analysis of DNA extracted from a stray feather or faeces may reveal more.  But for now that can wait as I savour a memorable encounter on a sunny Christmas Day.

Early Season Norfolk Moths

The warmer weather of the past few days really kick-started activity amongst our group of Norwich based moth enthusiasts. On Tuesday (19/3) I was invited to join a field trip to a private site in the South-west of the county to search for some early spring Breckland specialities. As the sun went down and we set up a handful of battery powered actinic traps hopes were high that we could repeat the success of a similar trip a few days previously. In the end a full moon and a sharp drop in temperature around 21.00hrs meant that numbers and diversity were not quite as high as we had anticipated. Nevertheless by the time we packed up at 22.30hrs we had managed to record at least 67 individuals of 17 species including the following five species all of which were new for me:

The birch specialist Yellow-horned showing how it got its name!
The understated Mottled Grey was new for many of the participants.
Water Carpet
Broom-tip – quite an early date for this heathland species.
For me the moth of the night was this majestic and subtly toned Scarce Tissue

I was too busy at work for the next couple of days to even contemplate running a trap but that did not deter others. On Thursday (21/3) news filtered through of no less than five Small Eggars being caught across the county. One at Cley and two each at Lyng and Litcham. This beautiful little chocolate coloured moth is declining in the UK and many moth-ers are more likely to have seen evidence of its larval webs in hedgerows than an adult.

Fortunately the pair of females at Litcham arrived at the light-trap set in the garden of Keith Kerr, top entomologist and leading light of the Norwich moth-ers WhatsApp group who with typical generosity invited visitors. I couldn’t make it, but because I was based at home the following day to receive a delivery I asked if Ian Robinson could bring at one of the Small Eggars back to Norwich along with a Lead-coloured Drab. I collected the three visitors from Ian on Thursday evening and as a result Friday morning saw a near constant ringing of the doorbell as a steady procession of visitors from Norwich and further afield turned up at my front door to admire the Eggars and discover how to tell Lead-coloured Drab from its more abundant and infinitely variable Clouded relative.

One of the two female Small Eggars.
Female Lead-coloured Drab – males have nice feathery antennae which makes them easier to tell apart from grey forms of the closely related and much commoner Clouded Drab

So far so good – all I had to worry about was when my package would arrive, scheduling a work meeting and returning the moths to Litcham. Except that visitor after visitor was telling me that a Barred Tooth-striped, caught in the Brecks the previous night, was on display at the NWT’s Weeting Heath visitor centre. Luck was on my side; the package arrived on time and my colleague plumped for an early afternoon meeting which allowed me enough time to take the scenic route to Litcham, via Weeting! When I arrived at the VC I found the warden James with two pots on the counter – one containing the BT-s and the other a couple of Dotted Chestnut, a species that is expanding its range in Norfolk. Although it has not yet reached me. James was pleased to see the Small Eggars, which by now were rather sadly moribund. This was almost certainly due to the exertion of them having fulfilled their biological role of egg-laying prior to capture than their excursion to Norwich. He then very kindly helped me photograph the moths, both of which were new to me, before I headed to meet Keith and return home.

Barred Tooth-striped: The Breckland population discovered in 1980 is completely isolated from others in the UK.
Dotted Chestnut

James Lowen has already blogged about the Kindness of Moth-ers a sentiment that I can only reiterate here. None of the above would have been possible without the collaboration of fellow enthusiasts; organising the field trip, lending portable traps, transporting moths around the county and sharing their finds.

And amongst all this excitement what about my own backyard? I ran my home made MV trap a couple of times over the weekend (21-24/3) recording good numbers (44 and 64) in catches dominated, as is expected in late March, by Common Quakers. Quality was offered by a pair of beauties – Brindled Beauty which was new for the year and a couple of latish Oak Beauty. But in truth it feels like the season is just getting started.

Oak Beauty from the garden trap.

Getting better every day

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.

My mid-morning appointment

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!

The best that I could manage with a DLSR given the distance

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.

Acleris cristana – the English name is Tufted Button which refers to the two raised matches of scales half way down the inner edge of the wing which give the impression of fins.

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.

Just look at those eyes

And the dense feathering on her legs!

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.

Male Dotted Border

Beauty and the Ibis

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.

Glossy Ibis, Bure Park Great Yarmouth Feb 5th 2018

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.

Pale Brindled Beauty, West Norwich, 1st Feb 2018

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.

Sheringham

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.

Graham demonstrating exemplary technique

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.

Black Redstart, Sheringham, Norfolk, January 2018

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.

Eastern Black Redstart, Skinningrove, Cleveland, December 2016

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!

Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft, Suffolk, November 2014

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!

Asian Rosy Finch, Hokkaido, December 2016

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.