Thursday 21 September 2017

PG Tips. Just my Cup of Tea 18th September 2017

c Stuart Piner
I had just about recovered from my marathon journey to The Outer Hebrides to see an American Redstart a week ago when I received another text from Justin. 

It was a simple question 'Have you got PG Tips?'

The answer was - No!

I should explain that PG Tips is twitcher shorthand for Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. The Tips comes from the fact it has white tips to its tail and the tertial feathers on its wing. 

The  particular PG Tips Justin was referring to was an individual at Burnham Overy Staithe on the north Norfolk coast that had been found there in the mid afternoon of Sunday and, for a warbler that is rarely seen due to its skulking habits, was showing itself unbelievably well. Such behaviour from this species of warbler is almost unheard of in Britain.

c Stuart Piner
Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler is a member of the Locustella genus which comprises a number of skulking, mouse like, ground dwelling birds that are notoriously hard to locate or find except when they ascend onto a low level perch to sing or behave aberrantly as with this one in Norfolk. Our Grasshopper Warbler, a summer visitor, is the best known of this group in Britain and the only one that regularly breeds here.

Every birder, no matter at what level of competence will tell  you they have one or more favourite species of bird. One's that touch the imagination like no other when seen or have that intangible aura that sends a quiet tingle down one's spine when mentioned or alluded to. Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler is one of those mythical birds that reaches out to me and consequently Justin's text and the fact the bird was so visible fired my imagination and desire to see it as I had never seen one. Ever!

What it is that makes this species so enticing to me I cannot easily define. Perhaps it is a combination of facts. For a start it is a very rare and sought after vagrant to Britain, normally found breeding in northern Siberia, Mongolia and northern China and wintering in Sri Lanka, northeast India and east to southern China and throughout southeast Asia. An average of only 1-2 per year reach Britain and 52 have been recorded up to and including 2015, usually in a restricted window between late September to mid October. It is also a bird that is most often found at inaccessible or hard to reach locations in Britain such as the Shetland, Fair Isle and the Orkney Islands but then every so often it confounds expectations and is found in completely random and unexpected places, its presence unsuspected until it is found, for example, in a bird ringer's net, such as has happened at Titchfield Haven in Hampshire (06/09/2014) and Spurn in East Yorkshire (16/09/2016), in the recent past. Then, once ringed and released they are never seen again. It is many a birder's holy grail alongside such other Siberian gems as Lanceolated Warbler and Siberian Rubythroat. When it does occur here it is enigmatic and you cannot make plans to see one. You either have to be very lucky and in the right place at the right time or spend weeks, even months on Fair Isle or another far flung outpost of Britain hoping one will turn up. Even then there is no guarantee as they are very hard to see, spending virtually their entire existence on the ground, skulking in tall thick herbage, reeds, swamps and thickets, running and scuttling around like a tiny rodent and affording only the briefest of views. Its plumage, although predominantly brown, is an attractive and variable combination of brown tones, its rump is decidedly orange and it has white tips to its tail feathers. Its build and shape are for some unaccountable reason also a source of attraction, especially the graduated shape of its spread tail. It looks an unlikely long distance migrant but each year one or more reach Britain thousands of miles off course.

This bird on the Norfolk coast would inevitably prove to be immensely popular as it is years since one has been found in such a relatively easily accessible location and atypically showing itself right out in the open.

It was too late to get to Norfolk before dark today, Sunday, but I instantly made plans to go and see it on Monday, informing my wife I was departing at 2am tomorrow morning in order to get to north Norfolk before dawn. The warbler was located on a sea wall about three quarters of a mile's walk from the main coast road, over a rough track and a couple of stiles. I debated whether to call my twitching buddy Clackers but as he is suffering with a bad leg thought the walk would be beyond him so decided this was going to be a solo run.

I sorted out all my birding gear; map, directions, bins, scope, camera and phone and put it all on the kitchen table ready for my early departure. I find it's so much easier this way than trying to think in the early hours when one's brain is hardly functioning at maximum efficiency.

I retired to bed. I had five hours in which to rest and for once even the inevitable building of excitement failed to keep me from sleep. I was awake at 2am and on the road by 2.30am, embarking on the four hour drive to Norfolk. I was not the only one out and about tonight and had to swerve to avoid a Hedgehog crossing the road just after leaving my house and then came to a stop just two miles from my home, as on the road leading to Chipping Norton I came across a Red legged Partridge roosting right in the middle of the road. This occurs fairly frequently around here with game birds but I cannot say for why. I got out of the car and made the bird fly back into the surrounding fields to safety. Yet another partridge was roosting at the edge of the road a half mile further on but I left it in peace as it would be safe enough from any passing vehicle there. Foxes and Badgers would, however, be another matter.

Driving so late in the night, the roads are invariably almost empty. Somewhere half way through the night drive to Norfolk my senses caught up with Monday. There is no tangible difference to when I left home but I feel it as I  drive east at a steady sixty miles an hour, traversing Northamptonshire and the confusion of ring roads round Northampton Town, then on through Cambridgeshire and out into the Fens. I know this route so well now from previous trips to Norfolk and every time something new manages to catch my attention. Maybe it is the boredom of the over familiar roads that makes me look for anything out of the ordinary, especially on those long straight roads through the Fens and that was where something caught my eye this time, illuminated by the cars headlights. For all the times I have travelled this route I had never before noticed an inconsequential purple sign on a pole, not very big, by the side of the road saying 'Welcome to Fenland'. Was it a new addition to the roadside clutter? Anything less welcoming than this desolate landscape is hard to imagine.Thankfully it was so dark the worst was kept from me.

Three hours later on the Satnav's instructions, and now well into Norfolk, I turned from the main road I was following and commenced driving a switchback of twists and turns along country lanes, crossing towards the north Norfolk coast. Barn Owls, like errant white handkerchiefs floated across the lanes, briefly illuminated by the car's headlights before vanishing over the high hedges that bordered the lanes. I stopped to stretch my legs and stepping into the darkness from the car shivered in a strong wind that was until now completely unsuspected due to my incarceration in the cosy cocoon of the car's interior.

A snoring wheezing sound came from out of the darkness to unsettle me. It could only be Barn Owls  the noise emanating from a vague dark shape that I took to be a barn.

I carried on driving and came to the village of Burnham Overy Staithe, now a trendy and upmarket place as are many of the other  north Norfolk villages, with house prices akin to those of London.I passed through the village and came to a stop in the small car park opposite the track that led out to where the PG Tips had last been seen yesterday evening. Would it still be there this morning?

It was still dark and I dozed into the dawn, dimly aware of other cars drawing up around me at intervals. An hour later it was just about light enough to see and I donned jacket, gloves and hat, scooped up my gear and headed off down the track, joining up with the man from a car that had parked behind me earlier. 

We walked along the track, at first sheltered between high hedges but once the hedges died away and we were out onto the marshland a very strong northwest wind hit us, blowing in hard from the sea. We were headed for the distant seawall which snaked two ways, back towards Burnham Overy Staithe away to our left or continuing straight on towards the sea. The PG Tips had been seen yesterday on the seawall right where the path on top of the seawall bent at a right angle out towards the dunes and sea beyond.

We reached a gate that opened onto a short but steep rise leading to the top of the seawall, which is not a brick wall but a raised earth embankment covered in grass, protecting farm fields on the inland side from the salt marsh on the northern seaward side. At the top of the seawall the full force of the wind confronted us as it came in off the sea. This was very bad news as a typically skulking warbler would under no circumstances want to be perched out in this.

I sat on a handy bench looking down and over a ditch of water, reeds, brambles and rough grass where the warbler had been seen yesterday evening. Then the wind had been light and conditions benign, today was somewhat different and not for the better. Other birders joined me, about forty in total although I had expected more for such an exceptional opportunity to see a very rare and elusive bird. Everyone waited until the light got better and then we stood along the seawall and looked at the area where the bird had been yesterday evening. An hour passed. Nothing, absolutely nothing showed itself. Well it wouldn't would it? Not in this wind.

I knew the outcome already if I was honest but was unwilling to accept it. It was always a long shot and it had not come off but at least I had tried as had all my fellow birders. As the desperation increased so normal birding etiquette was abandoned and some birders walked through the vegetation to try and flush the bird out. The rest of us stood and looked on complicitly. A small bird flew out and a disembodied voice next to me shouted 'Bloody hell that's it!' It wasn't. It was a Wren. Another hour passed. Groups of Pink-footed Geese, newly arrived from Iceland, flew inland over us, their squealing. excitable calls coming from on high. Curlews and Redshanks called, both putting into sound the very essence of the desolate saltmarsh beyond us and wide open skies above us. The wind roared on, buffeting us ceaselessly with strong gusts as we stood, totally exposed, in a forlorn line on top of the seawall. Desperation increased to the point where one birder then played a loud tape of the warbler's song to try and entice it out of its hiding place. This did not work either.

So that was it. We each, in our own way confronted the fact that we were not going to see the warbler even if it was here. The weather and the ridiculously high odds at seeing it anyway, even if the conditions had been perfect, had defeated us. Birders wandered off disconsolately, trying other nearby areas in a demonstration of hopeless optimism but if they flushed a small bird it was only a Dunnock or Reed Bunting.

In the end it was tacitly accepted that it was over.We would not see the bird and it would be best to move on.There was an Arctic Warbler at nearby Wells Woods so some headed there. I sat on the bench once more. Speechless and tired. Desperately disappointed and still unwilling and unable to accept the reality before me. It must be here I rationalised, as the weather last night was cloudy and rainy and no bird would migrate at night in those conditions.

It was now just after 8 am and I sat for another half an hour, hoping. I had no reason to but I did. Just me and another few diehards whilst a steady stream of later arriving birders were coming down the track towards us.

I set myself a deadline of 9am and then when the time arrived left my bench.The optimism, excitement and eager anticipation had long gone leaving me drained and emotionally flat. I just wanted to get away from here and to forget the whole experience. Passing other birders on the track back to the road, heading out with excitement in their eyes I averted my gaze, unwilling to engage with them, not wanting to acknowledge my defeat or give them the bad news.

I got to the car and checked my RBA app one more time, just in case, but there had been no miraculous re-finding of the PG Tips as I walked the track back to the road.

The Arctic Warbler at Wells? I could not face it. I set the Satnav for home and retraced my route through the now sunlit lanes of Norfolk and back through the flat lands of Lincolnshire, then Cambridgeshire and finally into Northamptonshire. Never had a drive been so tedious. I stopped at a McDonald's, not to eat as I will never patronise them due to the disgraceful treatment and pay they inflict on their staff but to relieve myself. It seemed an appropriate gesture of defiance at McDonald's corporate greed.

As I had been driving constantly there had been no opportunity to check my RBA App just in case something miraculous happened. As I left the car my phone suddenly pinged with a text message from Justin.

'Have you seen the PG Tips?'. 

I sent him a thumbs down emoji. Strange though, that he should ask, as he too had access to rare bird sightings so should already know of the outcome? 

Then it dawned on my dulled, sleep deprived senses. 

With a sinking feeling of apprehension I checked my RBA app. I knew what was coming and my heart sank. I felt almost physically sick. There, in black and white, was the dreaded message  

'Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler still by the sea wall at 0927'.

My head reeled with self recrimination. Why had I not stayed just a little longer. Only another thirty minutes sat on the bench and I would have seen it. Why, oh why! Tired, confused and now irrational I called Justin, a fellow twitcher, for no other reason than to speak to someone who I knew would understand my angst. I spoke to Justin and asked him what should I do, which in hindsight was ludicrous. He told me to go back and see it! I was two thirds of the way back home, it would be another two and a half hours to get back to Burnham Overy Staithe. Unfairly I jokingly told Justin I would hold him personally responsible if I failed to see it on my return to Norfolk.

Still unsure of what to do despite Justin's advice I left McDonald's car park and stopped at the huge roundabout allowing access to the main road in order to let a lorry pass. This was it. Turn left and carry on for home, turn right for Norfolk and the distinct possibility of further compounding my disappointment.

I turned the steering wheel to the right. I was going back to Norfolk.

The roads were now a very different proposition to last night, crammed with slow moving lorries and other traffic. There was nothing to do but just get on with it. No further reports of the warbler being seen had come since that last report at 0927 but I had now taken the gamble so just had to hope it would be OK. There was no going back this time.

Two and a half hours later I found myself standing with seventy other birders back on the seawall, now in bright sunshine but enduring an even stronger wind. No one seemed to be looking intently which was understandable as it transpired  the warbler had not been seen since that last report of it in flight at 0927, three and a half hours ago. This time I determined to stay until dusk in the hope of seeing it. Just once, no matter how briefly was all I asked of the birding gods.

Time wore on, maybe an hour or more slipped slowly by. Birders were by now chatting, phoning friends, lying on the bank of the seawall in the sun, wandering off having given up or just standing, like me, in mute hope. Two local birders walked through the rough vegetation by the reed fringed ditch of water below us. They walked the same stretch where the warbler had last been seen at 0927, maybe five or six times trying to flush it, but nothing came out. They played a tape of its song and calls but it was lost in the wind and still nothing happened. One of the birders gave up but the other gave it one more try, walking slowly and deliberately along the same course as before, persistently shaking the vegetation with his foot. Almost towards the end, near to the track the PG Tips flew out. It was very quick but I clearly saw the dark graduated tail, streaked upper parts and rusty coloured rump. It flew over the track, perched briefly on a wooden post and promptly dived into a small area of reeds immediately on the other side of the track. Those of us who had been paying attention saw it, those who had been idling did not. 

I had done it. Just. Hardly the best views but enough. 

Maybe I will get lucky and see one better when I go to Shetland next month. Dream on!

Pandemonium ensued as everyone rushed from the seawall, thirty or so metres down to the reedy area into which the warbler had disappeared. Surrounded on three sides, as people crammed around to try and catch a glimpse, the warbler remained resolutely invisible. You could hardly blame it.

The two local birders went in to the reeds to try and flush it again but it was uncooperative. A Dunnock caused mild panic as it was flushed from the reeds but then nothing more happened, the excitement dimmed and everyone resigned themselves to standing around and hoping once more. Others wandered through nearby ditches in case it had slipped away there but there was no more sign of the warbler. (In fact it was never seen again that day.

I stood for forty five minutes with my fellow birders then called Peter who told me he had just arrived at nearby Hunstanton so I advised him of events here but to forget about the PG Tips and I would meet him in the car park by the road and we could go on to see the Arctic Warbler in Wells Woods as I knew exactly where it was. Peter willingly accepted this as an Arctic Warbler would be a new bird for him. Re-assuringly, unlike the ever elusive PG Tips, the Arctic Warbler was from all accounts very co-operative and showing itself well to one and all.

I left the crowd, glad to get away. Although I like twitching this was not  to my taste as here were far too many people trying to see something that was very hard to see in a very restrictive space. 

I wandered up the track to the road, met Peter and we went in his car to Wells Woods. A short walk of half a mile westwards took us to where the Arctic Warbler was being admired by twenty or so birders and photographers as it fed in a group of five or six Silver Birches right by the track through the woods.

Arctic Warbler
It was no easy task to locate it in the trees as the myriad tiny green leaves of the birch trees regularly shook in the strong gusts of wind, creating a confusing multitudinous movement of shimmering leaves in the sunlight and effectively disguising the warbler's movements through the trees. Eventually, as my tired eyes adjusted, the warbler became more obvious and we followed it as it moved around feeding, always high up, amongst the leaves. Compared to our smaller Common Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers its movements were slower and more considered, even sluggish and it would spend periods of several seconds just looking around before moving. This meant that we would lose sight of it as it remained immobile in the leaves but eventually when it moved it would be re-located. 

A Yellow browed Warbler called from nearby but no one seemed concerned, too busy watching the Arctic Warbler, which was understandable.

A member of a group called Leaf Warblers, the Arctic Warbler is robust and compact looking with a thick bill, large head and short tail creating a distinctive profile. Its colouration is relatively bright, being a pleasant combination of bright moss green upperparts and off white underparts, with a well patterned head showing a distinct supercilium, white eye ring and dark eye stripe. The wings show a prominent pale wing bar where the pale tips of the greater coverts combine to form a line. On closer inspection the off white underparts have a yellow suffusion from the throat onto the breast. It is a very pretty bird and although up to eight occur annually, it is still relatively rare in Britain with 348 records up to and including 2015.

Their breeding range is northern Eurasia,  stretching from  northern Scandinavia east to northern Russia, northeast Siberia and northeast China. It normally winters in southeast Asia, the East Indies and The Phillipines.

So a very good bird to see and a great way to round off a day of conflicting emotions for me. We both watched the Arctic Warbler for at least an hour and once happy with our photos, from which to record this moment of triumph, we departed back to Peter's car.

Watching the Arctic Warbler 
We celebrated with a traditional birders supper of Fish and Chips in Wells and then Peter gave me a lift back to my car at Burnham Overy Staithe and we individually set about the long haul for home.

My grateful thanks to Stuart Piner of Rare Bird Alert for the images of the PG Tips

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