Monday the 12th October found me catching up on my work, which for the previous few days had been put on hold due to a nasty flu type virus testing my immune system. Depressed by the virus and the amount of work I would have to get through on Monday I called Clackers on Monday morning and suggested a trip to Norfolk on Tuesday to see an Isabelline Shrike at Beeston, which is near Cromer on the Norfolk coast.
Clackers needed little persuading as he had never seen an Isabelline Shrike and we arranged a 4.30am departure from his home at Witney so we could arrive in Norfolk just as it was getting light.That night I could sleep little, tossing and turning, disturbed by strange surreal dreams, probably caused by the remnants of the virus I had contracted from the week before or the medication I was currently taking for it. It was a struggle to get body and soul together as I ventured down to the kitchen for a herbal tea and some marmite toast to set me up for the long journey to Norfolk. I have never felt less like going anywhere as I did at this ungodly hour but slowly it came together and I set off for Witney. Clackers was ready and waiting and divulged that he too had endured a restless night. Undaunted we headed round the M25 and then up the M11 before turning east for Norfolk. At first the traffic was light but by six thirty the motorway lanes were full of cars and lorries heading for a myriad destinations, the opposite carriageway a moving sea of onrushing white headlights whilst ours was a mirror image but with receding red tail lights.
It was, frankly, a blessed relief to turn off the hurtling chaos of the motorway and join the roads heading east, with less traffic and consequently less driving stress. Dawn rose under grey skies in Norfolk and a fresh northeasterly wind shook the autumnal trees lining the road to Cromer, the trees showing bright yellow with dying leaves against the lead grey skies. We were still fifty miles from our destination but soon we were pulling into the layby that ran beside Beeston Regis Common, just outside Cromer and temporary home to the Isabelline Shrike.
A stretch of the limbs was quickly followed by donning some warm clothing and then we took the small footpath that led immediately onto a tiny common consisting of just a few acres of rough grassland and scrub.
Beeston Regis Common Norfolk
A couple of birders were lined up by a hedge scanning the Common but it was obvious from their demeanour that the shrike was not on view although it had been seen and reported earlier that morning.
Chatting to the birders we learned that the shrike could be very confiding and would quite happily perch close to us on exposed branches if and when it deigned to turn up. Personally I was circumspect as the wind was now quite strong and I figured the shrike would be keen to perch in the lee of the buffeting wind and not on exposed perches.
However such thoughts at this juncture were academic as there was no sign of the shrike. We stood around getting increasingly cold. Some people tired of waiting departed whilst others arrived but still there was no sign of the shrike.Nearly an hour passed with little on show apart from two Goldcrests in the bushes and a Siskin flying over. Jays rent the air with their harsh calls from the higher trees surrounding the Common. Clackers then noticed a pale bird flying into a bramble bush on the far side of the Common and then it flipped up to the top and there was the Isabelline Shrike. It remained there for less than a minute before confirming my theory about the wind effect, slipping down into cover and out of our sight. We waited for it to re-appear but it failed to do so.
Some minutes later we noticed that on the other side of the Common birders were obviously looking at something that was invisible to our eyes and could potentially be the shrike. Someone in their ranks then pointed a camera at a bush and started taking pictures which confirmed the shrike could be seen from the other side of the Common and so in the space of two minutes we made our way to the spot.
The shrike was secreted in a tangle of bramble and hawthorn, sheltering on the leeward side of the wind. Showing an almost white breast and underparts and pallid brown upperparts it just sat there composed and quite at ease, feathers fluffed out in repose and never moved for around fifteen minutes.
It showed no alarm at the scattered ranks of birders and photographers now standing in the rough grass admiring it but eventually it perked up, the roundness of its outline morphing into an elongated slim profile as it disappeared into the depths of the hawthorn tangle chasing an insect. Fifteen minutes later it re-appeared and again perched on the leeward edge of the bush before settling into another period of inactivity.
It is called Isabelline due to its pallid, sandy brown upperparts plumage. Its head and face mask is similarly diffused of strong colour into almost what one would say is plainness. Almost featureless in all plumage areas apart from a strikingly rufous tail, this individual was from the pale end of the plumage spectrum. Its body was typical of its genus, sturdy and compact with a longish tail and formidably heavy bill. It imparted an almost benign appearance as its large, dark, liquid eye surveyed its unlikely temporary home. It's a long diversion from Mongolia to Norfolk!
We watched it until another bout of activity sent it deep into the brambles and out of view. Fifteen minutes later and it still had not re-appeared. It was time to go as we now planned to drive to the other end of the north Norfolk coastline to Holkham Woods, where a Red flanked Bluetail, Dusky Warbler and Radde's Warbler had all been seen the day before, along with lesser rarities such as Yellow browed Warblers, Firecrests and Ring Ouzels.
Twenty minutes later we arrived in Lady Anne's Drive, Holkham, parting with the not inconsiderable sum of £6.50 (bless her Ladyship - times must be tough) for the privilege of parking. A short grumble about the cost cheered us up as we ambled our way to the two mile track that winds through the woods. A flock of garrulous Greylag Geese flew off the fields to be followed by a much larger flock of Pink footed Geese, wheeling and with bickering calls flighting back down into the fields accompanied by five Egyptian Geese. A herd of Belted Galloway cows stoically pulled at the grass, ignoring the commotion as a flock of Curlews ran around and between their sturdy legs.
In the woods we were sheltered from the troublesome wind coming in off the North Sea and it soon became apparent the woods were alive with birds. They were Goldcrests mainly, many hundreds arriving on a strong northeasterly tailwind from the sea having crossed from Scandinavia. Each individual, just a few grammes of bone and feather completing an annual miracle of migration and endurance. At East Hills just a few miles down the coast near Wells, earlier that morning, it was estimated there were at least fifteen hundred of these waifs making landfall. With the plethora of birds and the potential to find something rare, there came, inevitably, birders in all shapes, form and competence but that is birding in Norfolk at this time of year. You are never alone. A birder stopped us by one tree which contained at least twenty Goldcrests and told us a Firecrest was amongst them but we could not locate it amongst the flitting shapes. We walked on as tit flocks passed through the trees above us on both sides. Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, at least one of the latter being of the continental race, Long tailed Tits, Common Chiffchaffs and always accompanied by many Goldcrests. Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds flew over and numerous Jays flew in off the sea, shouting raucously at making landfall.
Our primary aim was to walk virtually to the end of the track as this was where the rarities were to be found but it was pleasant enough just walking along, birding and unencumbered by the weight of tripods and scopes. We came to 'the crossroads' which is no more than a crossing of two woodland paths and just beyond was the location where the Red flanked Bluetail was to be found. We were surprised to find no sign of any birders at all but on looking left and further into the trees we saw about thirty birders crammed into a very confined area some thirty metres from the track, insinuated amongst the thin trunks of the trees and looking intently into a small dell with a hollow containing a jumble of fallen branches. It looked just the right habitat but the bluetail was very elusive and comments from birders we had passed along the track intimated it would be a long wait to see it.
They were true to their word and we stood amongst the crowd and waited and waited and waited. Occasionally small dark forms, almost shadows, would flit through the stygian gloom of the hollow but before you could get your bins focused they were gone. Other shapes were silhouetted against the sky as they passed through the leafy twigs Robin shapes set the heart racing as they look so similar in contour and behaviour to the bluetail but they always turned out to be just that, Robins. The inevitable Goldcrests caused murmurs of anticipation and a dignified scramble amongst us but they too were always Goldcrests. A Yellow browed Warbler called above us. More neck craning but to no avail. A Blue Tit fiddled about distantly at the back of the hollow. I looked dismissively at it and then looked again. The Blue Tit had gone and there instead was a lovely Yellow browed Warbler working its restless passage through the upper storey of fading leaves. It called as if to confirm its identity and was gone. Two Bullfinches came and went but there was no sign of the Red flanked Bluetail.
Almost an hour passed and still nothing. Eventually tiring of this we walked out of the trees and around the back of the dell to view it from the outside, joining some other birders who were already there. They told us the bluetail had been showing itself occasionally and if we waited it would surely re-appear in the hawthorn and brambles on the outer edge of the dell and in a short time so it did. A high speed flick and there it was for a few brief seconds plucking at a blackberry before diving back into the bush. It was all performed at an incredible speed, almost too fast to follow but it briefly perched and I caught a glimpse of a royal blue tail and orange flank and then it was gone. Clackers was positioned too far to my right and his view was obscured so he missed it. He joined me and we waited. A few more Redwings flew over, a Brambling called from the trees and then there it was again. Orange of flank and a grey underbody, so robin like in its actions. This trait surely explained why the Robins were so hostile to it, chasing it away and through the copse relentlessly and no doubt accounting for its nervousness. I wanted a picture so we waited one more time and the bluetail duly obliged before fleeing with an irate Robin hot on its lovely blue tail.
We had done well. Whilst waiting I renewed acquaintance with a couple of old friends from Sussex and we exchanged our various news whilst we lingered, hoping the bluetail would show itself just one more time, which it eventually did.
Waiting for the Red flanked Bluetail to appear
This achieved, Clackers and myself walked back through the wood and sauntered to the end of the track in search of the very elusive Dusky Warbler which had been last seen at 11am, some four hours ago. We knew we had little chance and frankly were not surprised to fail. An arch skulker it could be anywhere in the reeds and dense undergrowth by the path. A Blackcap and another Common Chiffchaff was all we had to show for thirty minutes of fruitless looking. We could have gone further into the dunes of Gun Hill where there were two Ring Ouzels and maybe a Richard's Pipit but instead took a long and slow walk back along the track to the car, finding a Firecrest, all on its own in a hawthorn bush, that promptly disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Four hours later we were back in God's own county.