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.

Crown and Coues’s

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!

Dexter enjoying the change of scenery

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!

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Suffolk, February 2018

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Suffolk, February 2018

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.


Aldeburgh Revisited

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.

Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll, Aldeburgh, Dec. 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.

Purple Sandpipers, Slaughden, Dec 2017

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.

Snow Bunting, Slaughden, Dec 2017

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.

Coue’s Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Dec 2017

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.


Snow Buntings, Slaughden, Dec. 2017