Another Bank Holiday weekend and the predictable windy, grey and rainy conditions duly arrived as if by rite. A two edged sword as the majority of us hope for sun and warmth but as a birder the northeast wind with rain and mist brought ideal conditions for drifting migrants over the North Sea, with the east coast their first possible landfall and comparative sanctuary. I was eager with anticipation but dallied and dithered about making the decision whether to head for Norfolk on a Bank Holiday Monday. If I did it would have to be a 4am start and the way I was feeling a morning lie in was beyond tempting. I had a couple of glasses of the red infuriator in the evening and felt good. I went to bed and promptly woke at four. I do not need an alarm clock these days. My body seems to automatically programme itself to whatever time I conjure up in the memory bank and I just wake up at the required time. A bit scary but somewhat convenient. I lay awake for a few minutes in the dark. It was truly in the balance. I got up and now there was no going back and before I realised what was going on I was well east of Banbury and heading for the birder's mecca that is Norfolk.
The roads were enveloped in the night and virtually free of traffic at this pre-dawn time in the morning and I made good time, arriving in Norfolk as the mist cleared and the sun rose low in the east, burning red and orange. I came to rest in a breezy and sunny Cley at just after 7am. Even at this early juncture I could feel the day was going to be warm but hopefully there would still be migrants around although the sun was now fully out and the classic 'fall' conditions were gone. My first stop was at Dauke's Hide or to be precise the boardwalk just outside it. An Icterine Warbler had been reported from the small area of willows here for the last two days and it was a species I had never seen in Britain and therefore was naturally keen to see. I stood surveying the willows around the hide's entrance but there was no sign of the warbler. There were instead many Reed, Sedge and Willow Warblers flickering through the branches and leaves. A Sedge Warbler even approached me with obvious curiosity, dropping from willow twig to willow twig, nearer and nearer, lower and lower until it was literally only a metre away from me. We regarded each other with mutual curiosity.
I learnt later in the day that the supposed Icterine Warbler I was hoping for had in fact been a mis-identified Reed Warbler so it was no surprise although a little disappointing to realise that my time and expectation had been wasted. I spent around an hour at Dauke's Hide (how appropriate a name considering the circumstances) but decided there were better things to do after a fruitless wait and made my way to the nearby Cley Coastguards Car Park. Fearless or just plain reckless I was going to embark on the epic marathon walk out to Blakeney Point and back. Four miles out and four miles back. This is comparatively manageable on paths or smooth going. Blakeney, however, requires a trudge through ever moving shingle that slides away under one's feet, so tiring and wearisome that the walk to Blakeney has become legendary, nay, notorious amongst birders far and wide. Do not misunderstand me every birder should make the walk at least once as a rite of passage but it is not for the faint hearted or unfit and there is always the nightmare of arriving exhausted at the very point only to find there are no birds there. Hopefully this would not be the case today.
I set off with the blue sea to my right and white rollers crashing on the shingle beach. The sun shone in an azure sky and Sandwich Terns, silver white in the shining sea reflected sun, flew along the beach. Miles of shingle stretched before me with not another soul to be seen. A lone Dunlin, tiny, flew out to sea from the vastness of the shingle shore. I recalled the famous John Masefield lines 'I must go down to the sea again. The lonely sea and the sky'. Onwards I went, feet sinking and slipping in the wave wet shingle. I walked up onto the flatter area above the steeply sloping shore but the shingle there, despite some green vegetative patches, was no firmer underfoot. I saw another birder a mile or so ahead of me standing near to the Halfway House which is two miles out from the car park. He slowly walked on. I was now wondering if I had done the right thing. My legs ached and my feet hurt. Wearily but utterly determined I forged onwards.
The low growing vegetation where the shingle bank joined the marsh seemed devoid of birds until without any warning a grey bird with an orange rear flew at speed out of the low vegetation, away from me and along the bank. A Common Redstart. Then another followed it. A paler bird shot away from me to perch on a dead sprig of sorrel. A Whinchat, looking almost cream in the strong sealight. I looked and found another three, ranged in a sentry line on their chosen, rust red sorrel spikes. A flash of black and white caught my eye as Northern Wheatears put in their first appearance, bouncing in their inimitable way along the shingle, and so it went on with migrant birds constantly flying ahead of me. Smaller Willow Warblers also rose from the vegetation only to disappear just as quickly back into the marsh vegetation. This was obviously a good day for migrants and my worries about 'drawing a blank' were consigned to oblivion
The birder ahead of me had stopped and was scoping some brambles growing in a small and sheltered area of sandy dunes. He waved to me. Beckoning me to hurry. I acknowledged his wave and tried to speed up but the shingle was relentlessly unstable and unforgiving. Any attempt at acceleration was defied. I eventually got to the birder. 'Wryneck - top left of the bramble patch'. 'Oh yes! Thanks! What a beauty.' We watched the Wryneck, immobile as it sat on top of the bramble, until it flew into cover. My new found accomplice and I teamed up and walked the next two weary miles together mutually finding and identifying birds. A further half a mile after the Wryneck encounter and we reached another area of dune. A smallish brown bird invisible until it rose from a grassy track through the dunes flew a short distance and just as quickly as it had manifested it's presence disappeared deep into the marram grass. I noted where it went down. We walked up to it. Nothing. 'It was just here. I am positive'. The words had barely been uttered when six Grey Partridges with chortling calls of alarm hurtled out of the grass on short whirring wings and disappeared at speed. A few feet further and the riddle of the mystery bird was solved when another Wryneck shot up from the grass and flew away round the curve of the dunes. Out of sight. Gone in a flash. We did not pursue it. Nice all the same.
Our ultimate destination was a red roofed building virtually at the end of the shingle point and we duly arrived to survey the tamarisks around the building and what is euphemistically called 'The Plantation' just beyond. The tamarisks, dense and feathery green on their sandy bank harboured a few Common Redstarts, orange tails aquiver with nervous energy and some Willow Warblers, bright yellow and olive-green amongst the darker green tamarisk. We walked the few metres to 'The Plantation', in reality a tiny area of stunted trees and bushes enclosed by a single strand of wire and which you can easily walk around in five minutes. This famed location has harboured, over the years, some outstanding rarities as well as other desirable species that are more frequently seen. A tiny, fawn brown and white flycatcher, perched untroubled on the low strand of wire surrounding The Plantation. A Pied Flycatcher, with another flitting around in a Sycamore and then yet another zipped along into another bush. Like little wood sprites they flicked to and fro amongst the foliage and branches, constantly active, calling and cocking their tails.
Pied Flycatcher courtesy Matt Eade
Common Redstarts flew out from the bushes and grabbing an unfortunate invertebrate from the turf hurriedly retreated back into the sanctuary of the bushes. Ever wary and elusive. We sat quietly on the short turf resting our weary limbs and surveying the bushes and stunted trees waiting to see what else may be secreted in there. A few Willow Warblers appeared, then a Garden Warbler without a tail followed by one with a tail and finally a Lesser Whitethroat. The latter so dapper and svelte in it's pleasing combination of smooth grey-brown upperparts, dove grey head and silky white underparts. There was however nothing else to excite us. A party of White Wagtails with one Yellow Wagtail amongst them flew in from the sea and after perching briefly they moved on calling loudly. A distant Whinchat and Common Redstart disputed a lone bush at the very extremity of the point.
Reluctantly we faced up to the inevitable. There was no escaping the fact that we now had to make the four mile walk back on the unrelenting shingle. We headed back, more slowly now and looked again at all the migrant Whinchats, Northern Wheatears, Common Redstarts and Willow Warblers and an extra bonus, a Spotted Flycatcher, perching almost at ground level on the short vegetation. It was now warm but with a stiff northeast breeze to keep the temperature in check. We arrived back at the first Wyneck location and presumably the same bird again flew from some brambles but only did a circuit of the dunes before perching in the top of the same bramble patch we had flushed it from. I edged cautiously closer and closer to it. Fifteen metres, ten metres. It's marvellous plumage, a combination of cryptic brown, buff, grey and black mesmerisingly camouflaging it in the dappled shade of the bramble sprays. I noted it's long grey tail. I had never noticed this before. For twenty minutes it sat there, only slowly moving its head and then silently it dropped back to the ground. We left it and inwardly groaning I slowly gave the gravel a pounding, step after tortured step, back to the car park. A juvenile Sparrowhawk flew low ahead of us, perching every twenty metres or so on the shingle. We surmised it had adapted it's hunting technique to pounce on unwary migrant birds hiding in the low vegetation. I was never so glad to make terra firma and feel solid earth once again underneath my feet. I collapsed in the car, relieved that it was all over but with a feeling of fulfillment at what I had seen and done.
I estimated we had seen the following migrant birds on our 8 mile marathon to Blakeney Point and back:
Wryneck 2 poss 3; Northern Wheatear 20+; Whinchat 10+; Common Redstart 10+; Pied Flycatcher 5 poss 6; Spotted Flycatcher 1; Garden Warbler 2; Lesser Whitethroat 1;Willow Warbler 20+; White Wagtail 6; Yellow Wagtail 1;
Now where? A juvenile Red backed Shrike at Glandford appealed. It was in a hedgerow by a scrubby, weedy field at the back of Cley Spy the telescope and binocular retailer, not very far along the coast road and just inland. Fifteen minutes through the tiny narrow lanes and I parked in Cley Spy's car park and peered over a flint wall into the large weedy field surrounded by an untidy hawthorn hedge festooned with sparrows and finches. The shrike was sitting alone in a hawthorn, surveying the field for prey whilst the sparrows and finches kept their distance. I watched it for half an hour and then decided to try and see the elusive Booted Warbler that had been frequenting Burnham Overy Dunes. You will understand my reluctance, when stating that Burnham Overy Dunes requires yet another fair walk of say around one and a half to two miles just to get there from the road. After my marathon this morning this required no little resolve on my part. Would my body stand up to it? At least there was no shingle involved. Just as I got to where the path started I received a call from two Sussex birding friends, Chris and Matt. 'Hi Ewan, Chris here. Is your daughter still doing taxidermy?' 'Er yes' 'Well I have a dead Pied Flycatcher in perfect condition. It flew into a window and broke its neck. Would you like it?' 'You bet. Where are you?' 'We are in Norfolk'. 'Huh! So am I! 'Where are you exactly?' I asked. 'Titchwell'.
I told Chris that I planned to try and see the Booted Warbler. 'It's a waste of time, we waited four hours this morning and saw it for ten seconds and still cannot be sure it was the Booted Warbler it was so far away.' advised Chris. 'We are going to look for the shrike at Glandford'. 'I have just been there. It's easy to see. I will go back and meet up with you there', I replied. I got back first and scoped the shrike for a second time. A Sparrowhawk flashed along the hedge line. Everything fled. Previously unseen and unknown flocks of finches arose in a frenzied cloud from the weedy field and the hedgerow voided itself of birds as every one of the birds fled the scene. Chris and Matt arrived just after the Sparrowhawk. Chris handed over the late Pied Flycatcher. I gave them the bad news. 'I regret to tell you the shrike has disappeared. A Sparrowhawk flushed it'. We waited thirty minutes. A Whinchat perched on some thistles and an interesting small warbler was gone before I could get a good look at it. Still no sign of the shrike. Chris, tired of waiting wanted to go on to Cromer to see another Red backed Shrike there. Matt wanted to go back to Burnham Overy to try yet again to see the Booted Warbler. Impasse. Then came a pager alert. Icterine Warbler showing well at Burnham Overy Dunes. Impasse resolved. Chris was now enthusiastic but we still had not seen the shrike. I scoped the hedgeline one last time and there just showing a head and shoulder in the leaves was the shrike. So, although hardly satisfactory, Chris and Matt saw the shrike or at least parts of it. We were clear to go for Burnham. Time was passing and it was now 5pm with only, realistically, another two hours of good light.We needed to get a move on.
This sign took my fancy on one of the myriad tiny unclassified lanes in Norfolk
We parked at Burnham and commenced the long walk out to the dunes. Penny Clarke, a really nice lady who has a blog intriguingly and entertainingly called Penny's Hot Birding and Life was ahead of us.We caught up with her and chatted. She told us that the Icterine Warbler was still in the bushes that were an unreasonably long way off from us. We increased our pace and ungallantly left Penny behind. Onwards. A Pied Flycatcher hopped along the fence line by the dunes as we arrived at the designated spot. A lone birder looking at the small clump of bushes that harboured our target beckoned us. It was my new found colleague from Blakeney. 'That's two you owe me now'. He joked. 'No problem. Where is it?' I replied. 'It's in that exotic bush down there in the dip. The big bush at the back.' We surveyed the bush. Nothing. A bird dropped down into some willow-herb. 'Was that it? 'Don't think so' False alarm. Then shortly afterwards a vision of loveliness appeared in the top of the exotic bush. With a lemon yellow face, open gentle expression, pale lemon to white underparts and grey legs it was, unmistakeably, an Icterine Warbler.
Icterine Warbler courtesy Matt Eade
Yes finally, after many years, an Icterine Warbler. My first for Britain. All the more satisfactory after my abortive attempts to see one first thing this morning. It was in no hurry and unlike it's phylloscopine cousins the Willow Warblers and ChiffChaffs was almost sluggish in it's deliberate movements. It disappeared into the dark foliage only to re-appear giving even better views We watched until it again sunk into the depths of the foliage. 'Come on we can still do the Booted if we are quick!' said Matt. It took twenty minutes to get to where the Booted Warbler had last been seen. Nothing. It had not been seen for hours according to a bored fellow birder fiddling with his phone. We debated what to do. Chris spoke. 'Let's go over the fence and look at the other side of the bushes'. There were warblers there alright but they were very elusive and hard to identify. Chris and I wandered off. A little later Matt called us. We rushed back to his side. 'I think I have got it in that hawthorn right in front of us'. We looked and a warbler, very pale brown popped out of the leaves for a few brief moments. I have never seen a Booted Warbler so did not know what to really look for. Matt took some pictures of it. My new found colleague from Blakeney arrived. He had seen Booted Warblers before and informed us that he thought we were looking at a Reed Warbler albeit an unusually pale one. Matt looked at his pictures on the camera and close scrutiny confirmed it was an aberrant Reed Warbler. We could hardly believe it. So close but thankfully we had not publicised our erroneous identification. We watched on and as the light slowly faded the bushes seemed to hold more and more warblers of many kinds. Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Common Whitethroat and Willow Warbler all came and went but there was no sign of a Booted Warbler or even the strange pale Reed Warbler. It was time to go. We set off on the long walk back, Common Redstarts and Northern Wheatears were all around us with the sun gloriously low and setting in the west, bathing the vast area of marshes and dunes with a golden light. I was happy, tired, very tired but content. Birding has it's ups and downs as does everything else. We had just experienced both.
I've got no signal!!!